A paradox, in the best sense, is something that sounds contradictory at first, but contains a profound truth. In English literature, G.K. Chesterton is preeminent for paradox, as are poets such as T.S. Eliot. Religions such as Taoism, Hinduism, and Christianity are replete with paradoxes. The New Testament also provides us examples of paradoxical persons, such as Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Virgin/Mother: Virginity and motherhood are mutually exclusive choices. But Mary, as the spouse of the Holy Spirit, was the chosen vessel for implementing God’s plan for coming physically into the world, and furnishing the resources by which sin and death could be conquered, and access to eternal life could be established through faith. If St. Paul could claim to be “in labor” (Gal. 4:19) and to have “begotten” spiritual children (1Cor. 4:15), the fertility of the Blessed Virgin, which knows no bounds, is not something extrinsic to her virginity, but a quality inseparable from that spiritual state.
The Virgin Mary, divinized through grace, mother of the Son of God, assumed into heaven, and declared “Mother of the Church” by Pope Paul VI, is, like St. Paul “in labor again,” leading the faithful to salvation in spite of obstacles and persecutions by a sin-laden world.
Ordinary/Unique: Mary, the wife of a carpenter and the mother of Jesus, and the aunt of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, and their “sisters” (Matt. 13:55ff) was completely ordinary, indistinguishable, unremarkable, in all respects. She was a nondescript person (like many of us), given no VIP treatment in Bethlehem when seeking a place to give birth, receiving no special treatment as she lived family and community life.
She emigrated to Egypt, because of persecution, probably worked at various jobs there to help earn a living, and when returning to Nazareth took an annual pilgrimage with her extended family to Jerusalem. As Jesus began evangelizing, she was a follower with other women for three years, eventually watching in sorrow as her Son was crucified for blasphemy; then she was supported as a widow under St. John’s protection, and probably moved with him to Ephesus.
But as the angel Gabriel put it in Luke’s gospel, she was absolutely unique – “full of grace,” “blessed among women,” chosen to be the mother of “the Son of the Most High.” One can scarcely imagine the vast reservoir of graces that were bestowed on Mary to enable her to become a worthy mother of the Son of God.
God is ready and anxious to shower all manner of gifts on those who place no obstacles in His way. It goes without saying that if Mary always cooperated with God’s will from birth, she would receive an abundance of gifts far outshining the gifts possessed by some great saints – gifts of infused knowledge, working of miracles, healing, etc.
And yet her unfathomable richness in spiritual gifts was accompanied by an incomparable humility. One thinks of her appearance to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, and her extraordinary emotional reaction when Bernadette, at the insistence of her parish priest, asked her to identify herself. Bernadette posed the question twice and “the lady only gazed upon her, silently, with a faint smile.” But Bernadette in her official deposition says:
At my third request her face took on a serious expression, and at the same time an expression of deep humility. . . .Joining her palms as if for prayer, she raised them to the height of her breast. . . .She looked up to heaven. . .then slowly opening her hands and bending down towards me, she said to me in a voice in which one could sense a slight trembling, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” (emphasis added)
Note especially, in this disclosure, Mary’s deep humility and the seriousness of her expression while identifying herself to Bernadette. Mary’s “slight trembling” upon her self-identification as the Immaculate Conception expresses to us that she was and still is (even in heaven) emotionally overwhelmed by her divinely bestowed prerogative.
Historical Reality/Trans-historical Symbol: As mentioned in the Gospel genealogies, Mary descended from the House of David, following a long line of ancestors. Some early Fathers conveyed traditions about her parentage, and some apocryphal “gospels” tried to embellish the details. According to the proto-Evangelium in Genesis 3:15 a woman and her offspring would crush the head of Satan and redeem humanity, and a drama began to take place in the Old Testament.
God’s audacious plan as foretold by the prophets, in spite of the intermittent inconstancy of his Chosen People, was to come into the world as a real human being born of a mother. Mary was God’s absolutely necessary link in that truly historical unfolding.
Still, Mary was not just a historical individual, but a symbol of the Church, as indicated in Revelation 12:1-6:
A great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. . . .She brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.
The Ignatius Bible, quoting St. Hyppolytus, unpacks the symbolism of this chapter:
The woman of Revelation 12 is both an individual person and a collective symbol. She is Mary, the Mother of the Messiah and the spiritual mother of his disciples. But she also represents the faithful of Israel. . .as well as the Church. . .endowed with the Word of the Faith, whose brightness outshines the sun. Like the moon she is adorned with heavenly glory, and her crown of twelve stars points to the twelve apostles, who founded the Church.
If we wanted to just focus on the “historical Mary,” like those theologians trying to distill the “historical Jesus,” we would miss the significance of Mary, in whom so much divine grace flowed that Christmas so many years ago, contributing both to her greatness and our salvation.