#2: Mary and the Body

#2: Mary and the Body


26 December, 2017

Happy Christmas!

Given the Reason for the Season, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary, and trust, and bodies. This is the first year I’ve conceptualized Advent as something other than carefully rationed chocolate, and somehow also the first year that I’ve thought about Mary as a person that was pregnant. I’ve always felt that we don’t get very much of her inner life in the Bible—there’s the annunciation, and the Magnificat (which wasn’t really part of my tradition as an evangelical-charismatic-church-in-a-cafetorium kind of Protestant), and then Mary meditates on these signs in her heart (she’s the first contemplative in the Christian tradition), and then snapshots of her as Jesus grows up. But I’ve also never really thought of her as someone with a body: This was the first year that I realized that Mary was someone who literally gave birth.

Even though the entire point of the Christmas Story is about how embodiment is a kind of love, I don’t know that I actually spend that much of the time actually thinking about bodies this time of year, or ever really. This year though, was a year of profound attention to bodies.

I heard for the first time this year the theological theory that we’re given bodies—specifically, vulnerable bodies—because we are in trust to each other. Existing in strange, fragile little meatships forces us to trust other people, to come together in communities, to be accountable to one another. I know that I’ve felt both this fragility and this trust, and having a theory for why this might be the case felt powerful.

This was the year that my body first felt fragile because of itself. Like so many other people, I’m familiar with the fragility other people bring, I’m used to being followed for city blocks by men who just want to chat, have done the math for exits and witnesses, have asked for company on nighttime walks home. This year, though, the call was also coming from inside the house: I was laid out flat by an ovarian cyst roughly the size of an egg for a few weeks this summer, one that came back once or twice, unpredictably. I could feel it when I moved or walked or anything, and it hurt, but more importantly, it kept me in a sort of pain-anxiety that centered around how much it hurt, and preventing any further pain. This kind of anxiety and physical load is, if you’ve never experienced it before, totally exhausting. It also came coupled with the realization that so much of the ability I have to do things I love, that give my life meaning, are bent around the cooperation of this strange uncontrollable body of mine. I couldn’t read or write for long periods of time, couldn’t walk to the bodega to feed myself, was not great at holding conversations. It was absolutely terrifying to think that all of this high-flying life-of-the-mind stuff I’ve sunk so much of my identity into is so dependent on something both so intimately tied to my mind and so out of its control.

This was also a year in which the ways we have profoundly failed each other on a bodily level have become apparent. We’ve been failing for a long time, but this is a year in which one might make a list of the ways these failures have been named and dragged into the light. The people, mostly women, who have given voice to #meToo and the violations, both voiced and unvoiced, behind every story. The number of trans folks, especially women of color, that died or were murdered this year. All the Congressional running around that is explicitly designed to cut off black and brown bodies, poor children’s bodies from any kind of support. Black bodies who don’t make it home because they’re shot by police, brown bodies who don’t make it across the border and are instead sent back to countries where men with guns are waiting. And these are just some of the big, systemic, life-or-death things, not all of them. This is none of the smaller things, the words that might make someone hate their own body when they hadn’t before.

Our bodies are so weighed down with all of this political and personal baggage. They carry our public, social histories, every interaction we’ve had to drag them into, and they carry the more intimate histories that play out in the nerve ends and the sickness and accidents and injuries. I know I’m not saying anything new when I say that it feels absolutely incredible that the whole mess of Christianity comes down to a body, that it seems wild and lovely that the soft animal of our bodies is so central to our idea of divinity. But it bears repeating, mostly because I keep forgetting it, because I'm not there in the snarled relationship with my own body, because I keep forgetting the bodies of others. Mary is a reminder that, whether or not you’re invested in the idea of the Virgin Birth or the Divinity of Christ, there is divinity in the body, that bodies are radical possibilities, that they are the site of a fundamental vulnerability, and an opportunity for trust and grace, a location to show overwhelming love and care.