Opening the Word: Profound paradoxes

The literary critic Hugh Kenner, in “Paradox in Chesterton” (Sheed & Ward, out of print), distinguished between types of paradoxes. One type is verbal paradox, aimed at persuading someone about a certain belief. A more profound sort of paradox is metaphysical paradox, the immediate object of which “is praise, awakened by wonder.” This paradox “springs in general from inadequacy, from the rents in linguistic and logical clothing … ” 

This means that there are truths revealed to man by God that strain at the limits of human language. These mysteries of the faith cannot be known without divine grace or understood without supernatural insight. They confound the natural mind, which sees them as foolish, strange or even outrageous. It is what St. Paul had in mind, I think, when he wrote, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25). 

Today’s readings contain at least three of the metaphysical paradoxes. Each is rooted in the great paradox of the Incarnation — that the eternal and omnipotent Son humbled himself and entered time and history as a seemingly ordinary Jew. 

The first paradox points toward this divine humility, for it is a prophecy by Zechariah of a great king and savior whose strength is meekness and whose steed is a colt — an absurd image in the ancient Near Eastern world, for the strength of a king rested in his armies and horses. Zechariah wrote around 520 B.C., after returning from Babylonian exile. He sought to encourage the Jews trying to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem; in doing so, he wrote great Christological prophecies focused on this humble savior. 

The second paradox is the well-known exhortation by Jesus, in today’s Gospel, to take up his yoke in order to find rest: “For I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Those listening to Jesus understood (in contrast to so many people today) that every man serves a master of some sort; each of us is beholden to someone or something outside of ourselves. For many Jews, the law was the yoke that they took up as their covenantal burden. Author Erasmo Leiva-Merikakissaid that the yoke of the Son is the Incarnation. “He who was divine yoked himself to us through his humanity, and now he is inviting us to yoke ourselves to him and his divinity,” he wrote in “Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word” (Ignatius, $31.95), “When the Son’s yoke becomes ours as well, his Incarnation becomes our divinization.” The rest offered by Christ is everlasting beatitude and joy. This rest comes only through the Son, but we must choose to accept this gift of love. 

The third paradox is found in St. Paul’s epistle to the believers in Rome. It can be summarized this way: “In order to live, you must die,” which is essentially what Jesus said in Matthew 10: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).  

The more we grasp at earthly comforts and temporal security, the more elusive they become. The more we live in the flesh, the closer we are to spiritual death. 

But the Holy Spirit frees us by dwelling within us, giving power to overcome temptation and sin. This beautiful paradox means we are “awakened by wonder” — the wonder of divine life — and this is reason to praise God, the giver of life. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of