Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East by Carrie Frederick Frost
In the year 692, the fathers of the Council in Trullo condemned the custom of preparing semolina-based sweets in honor of Mary the day after Christmas, as women would do to congratulate and nourish a friend or relative who had just given birth, on the grounds that Mary’s birth to Jesus was not an ordinary birth (Canon 79). Similarly, the assumption that Mary did not experience the pains of labor is widespread among church authors and (to my knowledge) was never officially questioned—and that in a church quick to condemn as Docetism the claims that Jesus did not really suffer on the cross. Enhanced by a general misogynistic context, and often contrary to the church’s own dogmas, church authorities treated women’s attempts to connect their bodily experience of maternity with that of Mary as undermining the exceptional status of the latter.
In this context, the book “Maternal Body” by the Orthodox theologian Carrie Frederick Frost (CFF) is particularly welcome. The author contemplates her own experience of the various stages of physical maternity, drawing from Orthodox tradition pertaining to the Incarnation. The theological tenor of the book, first exposed in the Preface (xiii–xxix), is that the Incarnation affirms the inherent goodness of the body, including the maternal body. As CFF later puts it, “The church has a robust theology of the body; it is just a matter of the maternal body being integrated into that theology” (84). Even more, motherhood is an experience the physical character of which cannot be overlooked. The author boldly acknowledges both the paucity of theological reflection on motherhood, and the existence of “not-so-wonderful” aspects of the Orthodox tradition that contradict the theology of the Incarnation. But where theological treatises fall short, art in the forms of iconography and hymnography, mainly Marian, fills the gap. It is one of the things I most like in this book that the author treats art as theology— which is not to say that icons and hymns, like theological treatises, are not susceptible to bias and error.
The chapters of the book are structured according to the stages of physical motherhood. For each stage the author selects one or two iconographical types to discuss. The first chapter, “Conception” (1–19), is, by the author’s own words, on “the inherent esteem of marital conjugality in Orthodox sources.” These sources are icons and hymns on Saint Anna’s conception of Mary. Special attention is given to the icon of Joachim and Anna, depicting the two spouses hastening to embrace each other in anticipation of sexual union. This is an affirmation, or even celebration, of married sexuality within the Orthodox church, which has often been overshadowed by ascetic trends exalting virginity. The book leaves out of the scope cases of conception that do not occur within a functional marriage or are unwanted. In this chapter CFF also addresses two shortcomings of [End Page 99] Orthodox pastoral care, viz. the way infertility and miscarriage are treated. In the first case, religious practices bordering on the transactional promise to women that they will get pregnant, putting an unnecessary burden on women who unsuccessfully try to conceive. In the second case, a prayer labels a woman who has just had the traumatic experience of pregnancy loss, in the prayer’s words “voluntarily or involuntarily,” as having committed murder.
The next chapter, “Pregnancy” (21–34), is dedicated to this demanding period in the life of a mother. The author reflects on three poetic texts, one from the Psalms and two Marian hymns, that show God forming and establishing a connection with a human in and through the mother’s pregnant body. Moreover, the author refers to some contemporary instances of priests blessing the unborn children together with their pregnant mothers. I must say, however, that these practices seem quite new to me. In my work with Byzantine texts I have not encountered any special blessing for pregnant women, let alone for the child they carry. Apart from texts pertaining to the Incarnation, or the Psalms’ references to “in my mother’s womb,” nowhere could I find God building a relation to an unborn child. The examples CFF reports, as well as her own theological discourse, are fresh contributions to a living tradition, new but with a solid theological foundation.
At the end of the chapter CFF discusses two icons depicting pregnant bodies: The Annunciation, depicting Mary and the Angel who announces to her that she will bear the Savior, and the Visitation, in which Mary, pregnant with Jesus Christ, visits her cousin Elisabeth, who is also pregnant with John the Baptist. I am particularly thankful to CFF for drawing attention to the icon of the Visitation. To her insightful reflections regarding the depiction and celebration of the maternal body that make divine connection possible, I would add that this icon is a corrective to Mary’s exceptionalism, an issue CFF discusses in the following chapter. Indeed, singling out a particular woman and depicting her as extraordinary and unconnected to all other women is a common pattern in patriarchy—a notable, but not sole example, is the prevalent Orthodox male monastic view of Mary. Interaction among female characters is not to be taken for granted even in some contemporary forms of art: according to the “Bechdel test” (https://bechdeltest.com/), until well into the 1980s more than one-third of the examined films did not include a single scene in which two named female characters talked to each other; in 2018 this had dropped to less than one-fourth of the films. All the more precious is the icon of the Visitation, in which two women, who share the experience of pregnancy but have different experiences regarding sex and conception, lovingly embrace each other.
It is in the next chapter, “Birthgiving” (35–50) that the author openly takes a stance against Mary’s exceptionalism as expressed in many Christian traditions, including trends within Orthodoxy. Mary’s humanity is essential to the core of Christian teaching that God became human, receiving his humanity from Mary’s maternal body. The larger part of this chapter is dedicated to the icon of the Nativity. Among my favorite parts of this book are the sub-chapters “Pondering in Her Heart” and “Embodied Contemplative” (45–50), in which the author reflects on Mary’s posture in the most common icono-graphic type of the Nativity: Mary reclines after giving birth, her calm gaze directed away from her son. This is the moment, CFF speculates, in which Mary takes her time to reflect on what she experienced, sink into her body, and let body and mind unite in prayer of the heart. Thus, the Nativity icon depicts post-partum Mary as the embodied contemplative.
In the next chapter, “Postpartum” (51–65), the author deals mainly with the churching rite, with which the child and the mother are welcomed in church after birth. This is, as the author puts it, a “ritual of hospitality.” [End Page 100] However, to the original initiation prayers for the child, new prayers for the mother were added in the twelfth century (sporadically even earlier), in which the discourse of (im)purity is dominant. The association of birth with impurity contradicts the theology of Incarnation and the goodness of the body.
Since manuscript studies demonstrated that churching prayers for the woman appeared some centuries later than churching prayers for the child, it has become common to argue also on chronological basis that the “new” prayers have to be expelled. This is a legitimate argument. However, I am not convinced that the association of birth with impurity was as “recent” as the churching prayers for the woman. I totally agree with CFF that “there was not a continuous ritual tradition from Mary’s purification through the early Christian era” (59). However, in my opinion this does not necessarily mean that “the church truly did honor the conviction that childbirth is not sinful”: as the author herself demonstrates, for a large part of the early church both menstruation and birth made the woman ritually impure for a period of time, even if there was no rite to mark the end of this time in either case. Still, CFF makes an important point that in the Eastern tradition (im)purity was not inherent in the churching rite, which she names as the main reason (and I agree) why this rite was not so vehemently rejected in the East, as it was in the West. CFF argues for the necessity to have more mothers involved in the creation of churching prayers, which until now were, like practically all theological discourse, created by (celibate) men. She elaborates on her point in having mothers involved in work on motherhood and theology in general in the epilogue (83–89).
The final chapter, “Breastfeeding” (67–81), reflects on the rather common images of nursing in early Christian literature: God nursing humans and Mary nursing God. Mary is celebrated precisely for feeding God; she connects with God through her maternal body. CFF also discusses the icon of Mary the Milk-Giver (Galaktotrophousa), which is less common than textual references to her nursing. She points out the misshapen anatomy of Mary’s breast in these icons, which tends to disembody her and disassociate her from other women, and argues for an anatomically correct depiction of Mary’s maternal body.
This small book is a substantial contribution to contemporary theological discourse. The author brilliantly manages the balancing act of talking about an issue as sensitive as motherhood. The personal tone and the theology of the body safeguard this treatise from lapsing either into an ideologically-driven cult of motherhood or into patronization. She repeatedly acknowledges that the physicality of motherhood is not restricted to biological vs. adoptive motherhood, vaginal birth vs. C-section, or breast-feeding vs. bottle-feeding. She resists both too much spiritualization, which tends to annul the Incarnation, and too much attention to the particulars of the physicality of the Incarnation, which tends to ignore its universal significance. The latter is often the case for example in recent arguments against women’s ordination: in arguing that clerical ordination is imitation of Christ’s priest-hood, opponents single out Jesus Christ’s manhood to claim that of all humans only men can be ordained priests.
I conclude this review by quoting the end of the last chapter of the book: CFF talks of the ultimate act of “weaning,” namely preparing to drive her eldest child to college, and wonders whether after that she will want to “feast or fast.” Thus, by referring to nourishment, the book concludes with what is a further way to experience God, the world and oneself through the body in the Orthodox tradition. [End Page 101]