Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East
Carrie Frederick Frost
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2019
What is St. Paul referring to when he writes, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15)? Salvation through childbearing?
Carrie Frederick Frost believes the answer, at least partially, is found in “deification in and through the maternal body” (p. 79). A professor of theology at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, Professor Frost’s theology is intimately informed by her experience of mothering five children, all the more so with the last three having been a pregnancy of triplets. Frost convincingly demonstrates that without a healthy, informed theology of the body, we cannot have a corresponding, healthily informed theology of the incarnation.
For Frost, particular weight and emphasis is given to the maternal body in this regard. She writes, “…when the theology of the body is disregarded, the premise for the theology of the body is also at risk: the understanding that God became human; that he himself took on a human body…the goodness of the human body, as sanctified by the incarnation” (pp. 62-63).
Traditionally, theology of the incarnation has largely been formulated and communicated to us via celibate males. Frost astutely laments, “Until recently, much of the theological work of the church was done by people with a circumscribed incarnational reality: celibate men, who know neither the intimacies of sexual relations…nor the challenges of parenthood, much less the experience of the maternal body” (p. 87).
To understand incarnation, salvation, and deification, it is necessary to know the maternal body. “Mary was understood as having done the impossible: she gave God human form through her own flesh—her own maternal body” (p. 28). The stage for the drama of salvation is the maternal body—a stage which is not an ornamental backdrop, but the essential locus and medium by which it is effected: we are “saved through childbearing.”
Reflecting on the Visitation between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth as the first proclamation of the Gospel’s good news, Frost interprets Elizabeth’s statement, “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44), as evidence that “[i]t is through the two mothers’ bodies that John gains access to the knowledge” of the good news (p. 32). For Frost, the Visitation is a “portrait of the maternal body at work and suggests that knowledge of Jesus can be acquired by and through it” (p. 33).
Frost would likely rewrite Tertullian’s famous quote so as to specify that it is maternal flesh which “is the hinge of salvation.” The incarnation is through “her consent at the Annunciation, and through her maternal body…” (p. 77; author’s emphasis). Frost writes that, in the incarnation, “God and human beings commingle…” (p. 77). Pregnant with God in her womb, “Here Mary is nourishing God… human and God each sustaining the other; it is also a situation in which Mary is growing in communion with God…which includes her experience of deification in and through her maternal body.” Herein Mary becomes the prototype and exemplar of all redeemed humanity: “Mary is the most deified human being” (p. 77).
The new creation is a cooperative venture between God and the Virgin: “[T]heir workshop is the body…incarnation, brings us to be ‘even what he is himself’…God became human, became embodied, in order to experience a new intimacy with us, so that we might experience a new intimacy with him—within our bodies, which are blessed afresh by his incarnation” (p. xxv).
And still Frost speculates that we have not yet given full voice to this great wonder. Missing is the embodied reflection and voices of women on this most central mystery. “The work on motherhood within the church needs to be done by mothers…. [T]he church has not, to date, paused to listen to its mothers’ voices, and now is the time to do so… Mothers must do the work of bringing motherhood into the theological conversation of the church…” (p. 85).
What incarnational theology will look like when mothers’ voices are further added to the conversation remains largely unknown. However, Frost’s book itself lends some insight. Her incarnational theology is body-affirming, celebratory of conjugal sexuality, and attenuated toward listening to the body’s wisdom and its ability to mediate the divine. She also concretizes prayer as having the potential for embodied contemplation, prayer which is immersed in our physicality and not solely an abstract intellectual exercise.
I would also hope for an embodied incarnational theology, which true to its name, utilizes the biological sciences with our ever-growing understanding of human conception, gestation, and birthing, to reflect anew on its implications for our theology of the historical incarnation in Jesus. Frost quotes Father Alexander Schmemann that Jesus’ “humanity—concretely and historically—is the humanity He received from Mary. His body is, first of all, her body. His life is her life” (p. 38). In light of modern biology and genetics, we now know that cells from the fetus pass to the mother (and can remain for years) and likewise, cells from the mother pass into the fetus. What does it mean for our christology and Christ’s hypostatic union that cells from his fetal body remained in the Theotokos? What can it mean for Mariology that some of her body’s cells found a dwelling place in Christ’s body? Can these biological phenomena help to further inform our understanding of the Eucharist? Can the mutual indwelling of fetal and maternal cells serve as a metaphor to help understand the Perichoresis in the Godhead, the mutual indwelling of Persons in the Trinity?
While Frost regrets that women have been historically absent from these conversations, I suspect she would find affinity with and groundwork established by the 16th-century Spanish mystic, Mother Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534), who preached that the Father and the Son were each mutually pregnant with the Other as a way for people to understand and visualize Perichoresis.
Corresponding with Professor Frost about the bilateral transfer of fetal and maternal cells between the child’s and mother’s bodies, and its implication for incarnational theology, she responded: “I find it thrilling! I have not written about it, but I keep turning it over in my mind. Someday….” Given Frost’s powerful and fecund foray into incarnational theology in this initial book, future endeavors resulting from her reflection and further contemplation on this topic should prove equally compelling and contributory to the field of theology and its ministerial applications in church life.
I will be giving Frost’s book as Christmas presents to loved ones this year. It is an ideal source for reflection in the days leading up to the Nativity or for the Christmas season itself. While our knowledge of the conception, gestation and birth of the Messiah are almost fully dependent upon the two male authors, Luke and Matthew, Frost offers a mother’s own narrative and reflection on these seminal events in our salvation history, expanding our perspective and knowledge-base as only a mother can.
It is my hope that her call for the contribution of women’s voices is heard and received by the Church, so that the epiphany revealed by an incarnational theology of the maternal body suffuses the body of the Church.
Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East can be purchased directly from the publisher or from Amazon.
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Kevin Elphick holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members. One of our first guest authors at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, he has written several times for us.
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