In reading the books of Judith and Esther, it is of the first importance to remember their symbolic meaning. In the one book we are told how Judith slew Holofernes, in the other how Esther brought about the destruction of the schemes of Haman and, at least indirectly, brought him to the scaffold. Both Holofernes and Haman signify the power and predominance of evil, destroyed by our Lady through the Incarnation of her Divine Son. In this sense St. Jerome wrote :
" For me virginity is consecrated in Mary and in Christ. When the Virgin conceived in her womb and brought forth the Child, ' whose government is upon His Shoulders, the Mighty God, the Father of the world to come,' the curse was done away. Death by Eve, Life by Mary. . . . Then it was that the chaste Judith cut off the head of Holofernes.
Then it was that Haman, which is interpreted iniquity, was burned up in his own fire."
Jews, intent merely upon their literal sense, read the books of the Old Testament, which record the protection extended by the Almighty to His people in a barbarous age, where mercy and gentleness were yet unknown ; Christians, living under such different conditions, find their key and interpretation in the truths of Christianity, and should read them always in the light shed upon the events which they narrate, by the coming of the Saviour and His most Blessed Mother, whom those events mystically foreshadow on every page. Such is the constant teaching of the Holy Fathers. The mere letter oftentimes killeth; the spirit ever giveth life.
I will now give a brief summary of the Book of Judith, asking my reader to keep his mind fixed, not so much upon the figure of the chaste Judith, as upon that of Mary the Virgin who was prefigured by the story.
"In the thirteenth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, he called together all the ancients, and all the governors, and his officers of war, and communicated to them the secret of his counsel. And he said his thoughts were to bring all the earth under his empire. And when this saying pleased them all, Nebuchadnezzar, the king, called Holofernes the general of his armies, and said to him : " Go out against all the kingdoms of the west and against them especially that despised my commandment." The result of this order was soon seen when " Holofernes went forth to war, he and all the army, with the chariots and horsemen and archers, who covered the face of the earth like locusts. . . . And he took by assault the renowned city of Melothus . . . and he passed over the Euphrates and came into Mesopotamia . . . and he carried away all the children of Madian and stripped them of all their riches, and all that resisted him he slew with the edge of the sword. And after these things he went down into the plains of Damascus in the days of the harvest, and he set all the corn on fire, and he caused all the trees and vineyards to be cut down."
Undoubtedly Holofernes and his soldiers represented evil in the world. For the moment, great was his triumph. All the kings and princes of vast territories round about " called themselves and their children his servants and submitted to his law," and Nebuchadnezzar his master declared that he alone was God amongst the nations, brought under his rule by the power of Holofernes his servant.
"Then the children of Israel, who dwelt in the land of Juda, hearing these things were exceedingly afraid of him. Dread and terror seized upon their minds, lest he should do the same to Jerusalem and to the Temple of the Lord, that he had done to other cities and their temples." So they fortified the fastnesses of their mountains and betook themselves with much earnestness to prayer and fasting. When Holofernes heard this he was " transported with exceeding great fury and indignation," and calling an assembly, asked who were this people that dared to resist him and " who was the king of their warfare." In reply he was told their history by " Achior captain of the children of Ammon," who assured him " if there be no offence of this people in the sight of their God, we cannot resist them, because their God would defend them and we shall be a reproach to the whole earth."
On hearing these words Holofernes and his great men were furiously angry at the very idea that any people existed who could resist their victorious power. Holofernes, therefore, " being in a violent passion," ordered that Achior should be taken and handed over to the children of Israel in Bethulia, that when they were all destroyed " as one man " he might share their fate. Accordingly they " tied him to a tree, hand and foot, and so left him bound with ropes and returned to their master." Achior was rescued and taken into Bethulia, where he was welcomed at a banquet and informed of all that had happened. The next day Holofernes fulfilled his threat and " went up against Bethulia with his army." He proceeded to cut off the supplies of water, and great was the dismay and distress in Bethulia, so that all preparations were made to hand over the city in five days' time to the foe, preferring that their " end might be made short by the edge of the sword, than that it should be made longer by the drought of thirst." Now it came to pass that when Judith, a widow, had heard these words—Judith "who was greatly renowned amongst all because she feared the Lord very much " —she made a long discourse to certain ancients of the people, reminding them of God's goodness to their fathers, and inspiring their hearts with confidence, that if they turned to Him now, He would help them once more in their distress. And they said to her:
"All that thou hast said is true. Pray therefore for us, since thou art a holy woman and one fearing God."
Judith, accordingly, shut herself up and prayed aloud to the Lord, reminding Him of His Mercies that were past, and entreating Him to strengthen her arm, that those " who promised themselves to violate God's sanctuary might fall in their wrath," and that the chief enemy " might fall by the hand of a woman." Then she went forth boldly into the very camp of Holofernes, and parlayed with him, not as of old Eve parlayed with Satan, but asserting her power and superiority in the strength of God, who made her " incomparably lovely"' —until in the end he was delivered into her hand, and she struck the head off his body, in the stillness of the night, as " he lay upon his bed, fast asleep, being exceedingly drunk." Judith then returned to the city and :
"From afar off cried to the watchman upon the walls: ' Open the gates, for God is with us, who hath shown His Power in Israel . . . and by me His handmaid, He hath fulfilled His Mercy, which He promised to the house of Israel, and He hath slain the enemy of His people by my hand this night.' . . . And Ozias, the prince of the people, said to her: ' Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the Most High God, above all women upon the earth. Blessed be the Lord who made Heaven and earth, because He hath so magnified thy name this day, that thy praise shall not depart out of the mouth of men who shall be mindful of the power of the Lord for ever, for that thou hast not spared thy life, by reason of the distress and tribulation of thy people, but hast prevented our ruin in the presence of our God."
It is that I might, at the end, write down these words and those which are soon coming, that I have told the story of Judith in this book. When first they were uttered all the people said: " So be it, so be it." They are applied by the Church to the Blessed Mother of God, whose praise, too, shall not pass out of the mouth of men, for that she did not spare her life by reason of the distress and tribulation of her children, but—her soul pierced with sorrow—" has prevented our ruin in the presence of our God." Blessed is Judith. Ten thousand times more blessed is Mary. And when our Catholic people hear the praises of our Lady, with one heart and with one voice they all cry out: " So be it, so be it"
"Now, when Achior heard what had passed, he fell down at her feet, and reverenced her and said : Blessed art thou by thy God in every tabernacle of Jacob, for in every nation which shall hear thy name, the God of Israel shall be magnified by reason of thee. ... And Joachim the High Priest came forth from Jerusalem to Bethulia with all his ancients to see Judith, and when she was come out to him, they all blessed her with one voice saying: Thou art the Glory of Jerusalem, thou art the joy of Israel, thou art the honour of our people, for thou hast done manfully, and thy heart has been strengthened, because thou hast loved chastity. Therefore also the Hand of the Lord hath strengthened thee, and therefore thou shalt be blessed for ever. And, once again, all the people said: ' So be it, so be it: "