Pastor’s Corner: Woman vs. Dragon
Here’s a version of the Christmas story you’ve probably never heard before:
“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.”
This is from the Book of Revelation, chapter 12. It is one of many prophetic visions that the Apostle John is being given in regards to the last days and the return of Jesus. Like many of the visions in Revelation, it is hard to tell in this vision what is intended to be literal and what is symbolic. Woman clothed with the Sun? Baby-eating Dragons? What on earth is happening?
First, a few verses later, we are told that the dragon is “the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” So there’s one mystery solved. Second, the son who the woman gives birth to “will rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This is a direct reference to Psalm 2, a Messianic prediction of Jesus’ return and rule over the earth. Satan, Jesus… So the woman giving birth to Jesus must be Mary, right? Well, yes and no.
Clearly, one can read this as a symbolic telling of the Christmas story. The woman is Mary, giving birth to Jesus, and the devil, through Herod, is trying to find and kill him. Yet, the woman is a “sign.” She has 12 stars on her head, connecting to the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 Apostles. She is later referred to as having many children, all those who follow God. So this woman seems to also be symbolizing Israel and the Church. So which is it? All of the above.
Ultimately Revelation 12 seems to be a mythological and symbolic drama of the story of the Bible: Woman v. Dragon. It goes all the way back to Eden, when God predicts war between the seed of the woman and seed of the snake, promising a Messiah that would crush the snake’s head. Ever since, the devil has been raging against the daughters of Eve, against her snake-crusher sons, against Israel, and finally against the Church. Yet, over and over again, God rescues and protects his people. In the manger, we celebrate that the Snake-Crusher has finally come. At the cross, Jesus dealt the Dragon the fatal blow, defeating death itself. When Jesus returns, he will finish the job and rescue his unblemished bride, the church.
The vision in Revelation 12 is bringing all this together in an iconographic narrative. This can help us appreciate how Mary, even for Protestants, is something of an icon for the role of Women in the drama of salvation history. She is an icon for Eve, for Israel, for the Church, even for femininity itself. Through her “Yes” to God, she embodies the posture that every creature is called to make in response to God. This Christmas, may we all learn with Mary to submit, to trust, and to receive within ourselves the divine presence that makes all things new.