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The Virgin Mother of God – Wisdom’s Paradox: Tina Beattie

The Virgin Mother of God – Wisdom’s paradox

Tina Beattie

Wisdom is an enigmatic and elusive presence in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs portrays her as the playful spirit of God who was present at the birth of creation. In the Catholic tradition, both Christ and Mary have been identified with the figure of Wisdom. One of Mary’s titles is ‘Seat of Wisdom’, (sedes sapientiae). In Romanesque art she is portrayed sitting on the Throne of Wisdom, in a way that suggests that she herself is the throne upon which Christ as Wisdom sits.

These prismatic images resist rational explanation. The Marian tradition is expressed in symbols and stories, in music and art and popular devotions. It is best understood in terms of paradox and mystery, for it is the threshold between the human and the divine, where we dwell in a space of reconciling wisdom beyond the limits of human understanding. That is why Mary has always been associated with the Motherhood of the Church. She is the personification of that mystical dimension of sacramentality and wonder which we enter into through the sacramental life of the Church, and which expresses itself in neighbourly love and service to those who are poor and suffering. Just as Mary nurtured the infant Christ and stood at the foot of the cross, so the Church is called to care for the vulnerable and the oppressed and to walk with them through life’s long journey from Bethlehem to Calvary.

This reconciling mystery calls for vigilant and prayerful attentiveness to the dynamics of grace. The Book of Genesis tells us that the human condition is blighted by the knowledge of good and evil. We find it difficult to think in terms of both/and, because we are constantly lured towards thinking in terms of either/or. The knowledge of good and evil enables us to judge and condemn, to blame and to shame, to divide and to rule. It is the form of knowledge by way of which every other competitive and violent impulse enters the human heart. The reconciling wisdom of the incarnation invites us to embrace a paradox wherein we must unlearn the knowledge of good and evil, to fully inhabit the grace and goodness of the life that Jesus offers. Mary, Mother of God and mother of the poor, ‘full of grace’, is our supreme model of how to live that life of grace.

But Mary herself has been the victim of the bitter divisions that have inflicted such wounds upon the body of Christ. She has been claimed as the champion of warriors and crusaders, raised high on imperial banners, enthroned in the palaces of the rich, and in the Reformation she became the focal point of all the antagonisms which still today divide the Church. As women have begun to shake off the conditioning of centuries of subordination and silencing, many have said that her virginal motherhood is an impossible ideal which has been used to oppress women.

All this is true, and it has to be faced with courage and honesty. But we also need to rediscover the sacramental depths of the Marian tradition, in which the joy of the incarnation brings new hope to the human heart. We can only do this if we recognise the reconciling wisdom at the heart of all the paradoxes that Mary represents. This means resisting the constant temptation to translate those paradoxes into dualistic conflicts, which can only further divide and alienate us from one another and from God.

The fundamental paradox is that of the virginal motherhood of Mary. For the earliest theologians, this was not about a rejection of sex or the control of women – although it would soon become both. It was about the full divinity and humanity of Christ in the mystery of the incarnation. Mary’s virginity represents the recreation of the world out of nothing by God. She is herself the new creation (which is the deep meaning of the Immaculate Conception), and she is the one who cooperates with God in bringing about the new creation in Christ. Patristic thinkers refer to her as the ‘rational paradise’. St. Anselm says in one of his sermons that ‘God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world.’ In an era when we urgently need to rediscover the intimate harmonies that weave us into the music of creation, Mary is a symbol of God’s creative love continuously renewing and sustaining the cosmos. In this context, her virginity refers to the awesome mystery of those aspects of creation that remain unsullied by human intervention – like the virgin forest or the virgin ocean.

As mother, Mary represents the humanity of Christ, so that his flesh is woven into the materiality of creation and into the unfolding of the human story from the beginning of time. In the conjoining of virginity and motherhood, we encounter the same paradox that we encounter in the conjoining of Word and flesh, of God and human, in Christ. We are invited to contemplate that which is not possible from our dualistic human perspective, and through that impossibility to be drawn into the mystery of the incarnation.

Yet Mary’s story also calls us back to the rugged realities of work and sorrow, homelessness, persecution and abandonment, which afflict the poor today as much as they did in the time of the Roman empire. Mary gave birth among the animals, she fled into exile with Joseph and the infant Jesus, she trudged the countryside with her Son, and she remained there at the very end, in the greatest condition of abandonment that any human being can experience. In the Mother of God at the foot of the cross, we see the heart of God breaking open to let in the world through the wounds of his Son. That tear-stained woman fainting with grief on Calvary is the Queen of Heaven, and at their best Catholic art, liturgy and devotion have always held these reconciling paradoxes together.

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Pope Francis has repeatedly said that he wants a ‘messy’ Church, a poor Church of the poor, which is not afraid to take risks and which puts the joy of the Gospel before all our distracting pre-occupations with rules and regulations. Mary is our guide and companion through the messy risks that come with living in the joy of the incarnate Christ. She continues to incarnate Christ deep within the sinews of our humanity. That is why her cult is so multi-faceted, her image so readily available to all who lay claim to her. Redemption is universal, but incarnation is particular. We can only understand what Christ means if we can recognise him and serve him in the face of our own neighbours and communities. Mary reveals that divine face to us through her ongoing participation in the incarnation as the sanctification of all creation. f




Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton in London.page 5 Tina Beattie