Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Paradox of Mary

Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
the fulcrum of the everlasting plan,
You are she who ennobled human nature
so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
to make Himself the Creature of His creature.

Thus sings St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the “Troubadour of Mary,” in Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso. From its first words this imagined hymn captures the paradox of the Blessed Virgin Mary: virgin and mother, daughter of her Son, humbler and loftier.

As both virgin and mother, our Lady reveals to us the dignity and complementarity of both vocations. Her perpetual virginity (i.e. before, during, and after the birth of her Son) serves as a sign of the pure, integral, and complete gift of herself to the Lord. From the earliest years of the Church women have sought to imitate our Lady in this vocation, by foregoing marriage and giving themselves completely to our Lord, their consecrated virginity being an outward sign — a kind of sacrament — of their interior devotion.

Mary’s motherhood in turn reveals the dignity of every woman who bears the lofty title of mother. That intimate and profound union of mother and child exists between Mary and God himself. Every instinct, struggle, concern, passion, and love of a mother’s heart towards her child exists in Mary’s heart towards God. And every affection that a man can have only for his mother God holds for Mary alone.

But it is not merely that Mary remains a virgin despite being a mother, nor even that she becomes a mother despite being a virgin. Rather, Mary’s virginity itself is fruitful. Christmas Mass celebrates that “the spotless virginity of Mary brought forth a savior to this world.” Her virginity became fruitful and fecund, bestowing on her also the dignity of motherhood and revealing that her motherhood is the working of God’s grace. She is Mother of God through her virginity, the sign and expression of the pure and complete gift of herself to God.

Another paradox we find in Mary is that she is the daughter of her own son. How can this be? This curious phrase in fact provides the response to those who say that Catholics elevate Mary above the need for her Son’s grace. In fact, our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and fullness of grace depend entirely — as do you and I — on our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. By this sacrifice, he won every grace for us — and for Mary. But he bestowed the graces upon her in anticipation of the Cross, and upon us afterwards. Every grace she received, including that of her divine motherhood, is a fruit of her Son’s sacrifice.

Finally, our Lady reveals the union and, again, the complementarity of humility and greatness. She, both humbler and loftier, is the first to live the truth that her own son taught: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12). When Mary visits Elizabeth she proclaims that the Lord raised her up precisely because he had looked on her humility (cf. Lk 1:48). Again, she is exalted not despite her humility but through it. This helps us understand the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s sinlessness expresses her complete and humble dependence on God — so that he could fill her perfectly with his grace and exalt her above every other creature. So she became the first disciple of our Lord and the pattern of all holiness.

— Fr. Paul Scalia

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