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  • Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East by Carrie Frederick Frost
  • Eirini Afentoulidou
Carrie Frederick Frost, Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2019). xxxii + 107 pp. ISBN: 978-08091-5391-6.

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...


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