A contentious subject betwixt Protestants and Catholics focuses on the identity of the Woman of Revelation 12:
1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. 3 Then a second sign appeared in the sky: there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them to the ground, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was at the point of giving birth, so that it could eat the child as soon as it was born. 5 The woman was delivered of a boy, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre, and the child was taken straight up to God and to his throne, 6 while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had prepared a place for her to be looked after for twelve hundred and sixty days. … As soon as the dragon found himself hurled down to the earth, he sprang in pursuit of the woman, the mother of the male child, 14 but she was given a pair of the great eagle’s wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after for a time, two times and half a time. 15 So the serpent vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current, 16 but the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river spewed from the dragon’s mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged with the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, who obey God’s commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus. [NJB]
I have heard at least three different explanations of this difficult passage, but I do not think that any of them is just obviously better than the others beyond any doubt whatsoever. I have heard her described as the nation of Israel and her son as the Messiah. The thing that does not work for this view is that the son quite obviously is the Messiah (verse 5 with Psalm 2), but He was not taken up directly to heaven upon birth and Israel did not escape into the desert either at the time of His birth nor even later at his resurrection or ascension. Furthermore, it seems a bit much to say that Israel as a nation gave birth to the Christ Child when it was clearly the Virgin Mary.
A second possibility is that the Woman is Christ’s Church. This has the benefit of making sense of verse 17, but beyond that makes very little sense to me: how can the Church give birth to her Lord? Is that not completely backwards? So this has never convinced me, so far as I can recall.
A third possibility is one that I never considered until after I became Catholic, and then it seemed blindingly obvious: the Woman is Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Messiah and according to Catholic tradition the mother of the Church as well.
Pope Francis has this to say (I think that this book is from his days as archbishop in Buenos Aires):
JESUS ESTABLISHES THE CHURCH, and he establishes us within the Church. The mystery of the Church is closely united to the mystery of Mary, mother of God and mother of the Church. Mary brings us forth and cares for us, and the Church does also. Mary helps us grow, and the Church does also. And at the hour of death, the priest bids us farewell in the name of the Church and leaves us in the arms of Mary. She is “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Apoc 12: 1). That is the Church and that is the modest Virgin that our faithful people venerate. That is why in speaking of the Church we need to feel the same devotion as we feel for the Virgin Mary.
[Pope Francis; Open Mind, Faithful Heart (p. 44). Kindle Edition]
Why do we say that she is the mother of the Church? There are two main reasons. First, the Church is repeatedly described in the Bible as the Body of Christ. If that is the case (and it must be so, in some mystical sense), then together with Jesus her Head she forms the totus Christus, and may be said to have been “born” of Mary in that Mary gave birth to Jesus.
A second reason is found in John 19:26-27:
Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
The Church has long understood this as not merely the Lord ensuring that His mother is cared for, but also as associating the Church (in the apostle John) with Mary as the Church’s mother. This makes the most sense, I think, when we consider again that the Church is in fact the Body of Christ, but it is still in some sense a mystery (and not one that I can explain).
But I digress. Getting back to Revelation 12, the notion that the Woman is Mary has some strong things to be said in its favor. First of course is the fact that her Son is Jesus, who really is the one who will rule the nations with a scepter of iron. That practically settles the issue all by itself, it seems to me. But there is more to be said. We may see the Dragon as Herod, looking to kill the Child Jesus immediately (though admittedly it actually happened after the fact and not beforehand as the passage says; so there are problems with this view as well).
I do not know of any particularly good way to understand verse 5, because Jesus was not taken directly to heaven. The Woman’s son can’t realistically be anyone other than He, given the iron scepter, so perhaps some sort of telescopic compression of time occurs in what John sees here.
At any rate, it is a difficult passage. I think a strong case can be made for the identification of the Woman as the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it is not without problems that I am equipped to surmount. Revelation is a book that defies explanation at times, it seems. :-)