For most of my childhood, I was given the esteemed role of playing Mary in the annual Christmas pageant at my church. I got to wear a blue veil and follow Joseph through the sanctuary on our long journey to the stable at the front of the church, where I would sneak behind the altar and retrieve the baby doll that I would finally place in the manger. One minute Mary didn’t have Jesus,and the next she did. There he would be, sleeping peacefully in a bed of hay as the congregation sang “Joy to the World.”
This children’s rendition of the birth of Jesus summarizes well how I grew up learning about the role of Mary, but more broadly, it says something significant about how the church has often dealt with the female body. From its earliest times, the church has struggled to be a space in which women and girls can think positively about their identities as Christians and the reality of their female bodies. When the female body makes itself too known by stepping out of hiding or out of line, the church is often quick to minimize, cover, remove, or discount.
In conjunction with the culture in which the church was born, women were quickly associated with the flesh and body while men were associated with the mind and soul, with the former being minimized and the latter being elevated.1 Not only is the body—the female body in particular—minimized, but it is often associated with sin; the female body causes sin in others by the way the female body is simply present and existing in the world.
To talk about a woman in the church is to deal with the reality of her body, as if her body—her physical being—is some issue with which she must deal. Girls and women are left carrying shame and questions about the goodness of their own bodies. Because of this, they either carry the responsibility of hiding and minimizing their bodies, or they are minimized in the retelling of their stories. For Mary, this looks like telling the story of Jesus’ birth as if Mary’s body played little to no role in the coming of Christ. One minute Mary didn’t have Jesus, and the next she did.
Yet, Mary is the highly favored one, the mother of God. She carried Jesus—God with us—in her own body. In the very body created by God, Mary carried, birthed, and nurtured God incarnate. She felt Jesus growing within her; she pressed her hand to her belly and felt Jesus kick. Mary stretched and swelled and grew as Emmanuel was formed within her. Finally, when the time had come, the mother of God labored, bled, and finally birthed her son into the world. The early church debated about the title for Mary. Was it proper to call her the Theotokos, the God-bearer, or was she the Christotokos, the Christ-bearer? The importance and fullness of Mary’s participation in the incarnation cannot be minimized or understated. As was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary is the Theotokos. A teenage girl is the mother of God. A teenage girl’s body was the locus of the incarnation, the meeting place of human and divine.
God chose Mary to be the most physical participant in Christ’s incarnate work. Mary’s body participated with God’s own creative work of forming God incarnate in her womb. God could have chosen any way God wanted to physically enter the world. And yet, Mary. Mary was God’s choice in the fullness and entirety of her female body. This did not require her to minimize or hide her female self or body. Through, in, and of her body, Mary participated in a miracle, and this truth speaks back to the lies of shame women experience in relation to their own bodies. God is calling us, our whole selves, to participate in miracles, too. Mary’s consent, “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38), calls us to say yes as well to whole-self participation in the work that God is doing in and among us.
The female body is not a liability to the work of God, and the story of Mary tells us so. The shame that women carry around in relation to their bodies is layered with cross sections of shame beyond just the femaleness of their bodies, but body size, skin color, abilities and disabilities, and visible and invisible wounds as well. All of this shame deepens the lie that our bodies are sinful, or less than, or must be hidden, or are a tripping point for others seeing the goodness of God. Being ashamed, however, is not the relationship God created women to have with their bodies, nor is being less than the identity God created women to live into.
Mary’s prophetic song calls us to have hope now that God “has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52). God is lifting up those who are humble—or have been humbled or minimized or deemed less than—and calling us to participate in the work of bringing about a new order, a new order that was inaugurated by Jesus being born of Mary.
1. Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).