If there’s one thing most of our Protestant brothers and sisters can’t understand about the Catholic faith, it’s probably our devotion to Mary. To them, our love for the mother of Jesus often seems like nothing less than idolatry, and they have no problem pointing to numerous devotional practices that appear to prove them right. For example, we give Mary exalted titles like Queen of Heaven, we crown statues of her, and we consecrate ourselves to her. While we Catholics would obviously contend that we’re not actually worshipping Mary, we do have to admit that without a solid understanding of the theology behind such practices, it can be tough to see how we’re not.
Another common Marian devotional practice that seems idolatrous is our tradition of depicting Mary standing on top of a snake. This image comes from the book of Genesis, where God says to the snake that tempted Adam and Eve:
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
In this verse, God is pronouncing a curse on the snake (who represents the devil) and promising a savior who will one day defeat him and all his minions. Now, that savior is obviously Jesus, and once we understand that, it seems almost impossible to say that this tradition isn’t blasphemous. Jesus is the one who will crush the snake’s head, so portraying Mary that way looks like a clear instance of giving her a role that belongs exclusively to her son. So what can we say about it? Does this prove that Catholics really do worship Mary, or is there more going on here than meets the eye?
I would argue that the issue isn’t quite so simple. Yes, Jesus is the promised “offspring” of Eve who will crush the snake’s head and defeat the devil and his minions, but that role isn’t unique to him. Check out this verse from one of St. Paul’s letters:
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. (Romans 16:20)
In this text, St. Paul is clearly alluding to God’s curse on the snake in Genesis, and he’s saying that all Christians, not just Jesus, will crush its head. Granted, we do it by the power of God rather than by any strength of our own, but the fact remains that we can all participate in Jesus’ victory over the devil. As a result, our tradition of portraying Mary standing on top of a snake isn’t so blasphemous after all. We could theoretically depict any saint like that, so there’s nothing wrong with it.
Blessed Among Women
However, there’s still a question here. Even though we could portray any saint standing on top of a snake, Mary is the only one who’s commonly depicted that way. And why is that? Why is she the only one that we normally show crushing a snake’s head? I would suggest that it’s because Mary participated in Jesus’ victory over the devil in a unique way. As the mother of the savior, she played a singular role in our redemption, a role that nobody else in history ever has or ever could fill.
And that’s not just my own speculation. The Bible actually teaches this. Take a look at these passages and see what they have in common:
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead. (Judges 5:24-27)
O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to strike the head of the leader of our enemies. (Judith 13:18)
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Luke 1:42)
Do you see the similarities? In all three of these passages, a woman is proclaimed the most blessed on earth. In the first two, the women Jael and Judith are given this praise for saving the Israelites by killing their enemies, and in the third text, Elizabeth is praising her cousin Mary when Mary goes to visit her.
Now, the two Old Testament passages that form the background for Elizabeth’s praise of Mary both involve a woman who crushed the head of her enemy, so when we see this praise echoed in the New Testament, it must mean that Mary also crushes the head of her enemy. And who could that enemy be? The text doesn’t tell us, but it does give us a clue. Elizabeth praises Mary and her son Jesus in the same sentence, so it stands to reason that she is “blessed…among women” precisely because she is the mother of the Messiah.
And if that’s the case, then she has to crush the head of the same enemy whose head her son crushes: the snake from Genesis. In other words, as I said earlier, Mary participated in Jesus’ victory over the devil an indispensable and unrepeatable way by being his mother. She gave the world its savior and made his victory on our behalf possible, something that nobody else ever did or could do again.
Once we understand all that, we can see that the tradition of portraying Mary standing on top of a snake isn’t idolatrous at all. Yes, Jesus is the one who wins the ultimate victory over the devil and crushes the head of the snake, but Scripture teaches that we all participate in that victory. More specifically, it also teaches that Mary participated in that victory in a unique way, making it entirely fitting for us to portray her standing on top of a snake and crushing its head.