Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East
by Carrie Frederick Frost
For some time, Carrie Frederick Frost has been an important voice among women Orthodox theologians in the US. She has written and presented numerous reflections on the rites of churching, on women as deacons, on marriage and childrearing in the church’s life, on the significance of the Mother of God as well as Elizabeth her cousin and other notable figures in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
In the path of the legendary Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, she has not asked about whether women can have a place in the church. Rather Frost has written and lectured knowing full well there are decisive statuses and roles for women in the body of Christ, even if some are denied or have been lost in time. She is among a number of women in the academy and professions who are expressing the ideas, vision, and hopes of women in the Eastern Church. They are found in groups like the Orthodox Theological Society in America, the International Orthodox Theological Association, St. Phoebe Center, Axia Women among others.
I am reminded a great deal of the clarity and the courage of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, who I had the great privilege of knowing, as I moved through Maternal Body. There is a wonderful coherence as Frederick Frost draws upon the feasts of Mary and their hymns and scriptural texts, the prayers of the Eastern Church tradition for miscarriage, the churching or reception of mothers back into the community, and other prayers which are part of baptism. In these, she finds the power of the maternal body of Mary bringing into being the body of her son, the Word incarnate, Jesus the Christ. That God should become part of time, space, and the human condition through a mother bearing and then giving birth to, feeding, nurturing, and teaching a child—how wonderful a celebration of women in the plan of God for the world. The Hebrew Bible’s great women—Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Hannah, Deborah, Judith, Esther among others, were prophets and witnesses of God, Hannah even leaving her song about God’s working through her to be echoed in Mary’s Magnificat.
Frost writes expressive, beautiful accounts of Mary’s maternity as herself a mother and wife, exploring the topics of conception, pregnancy, birthgiving, postpartum and breastfeeding. Several icons, of the annunciation, of Joachim and Anna embracing, of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, of the birth of Jesus and of the mother of God nursing her son are reproduced so that Frost’s reflections on how icons present theology in shape and color can actually be viewed.
Yet at the same time, the rise of misogyny and disdain for the human body, the body of women in particular, as well as for sex, celibacy coming to have a higher purity and value—these perspectives became planted in the liturgical texts not only for churching but even for miscarriage. Frost reveals how the prayer for women who have miscarried is the same as for abortion. These prayers ask forgiveness for the woman’s sin and defilement in making a child, bearing and birthing, even losing a pregnancy. She notes how in the west these extreme views have disappeared as older texts are no longer used. In the Eastern churches, with their adherence to the received texts and abhorrence of any change, they have not experienced such rethinking and change. Though there are some new prayers and modifications approved here and there by a few bishops.
The force of Frost’s writing is evident throughout, but especially in the postpartum chapter. She does not look away from the physical consequences of pregnancy and giving birth, the alteration of her body, even her hair. She had triplets, so this particular pregnancy and birth and the time after and parenting were formidable. This radical personal honesty pervades the whole book as does a sense of the gift of God’s becoming part of all that we are, do our world and ourselves, in particular, our bodies. I await more writing from Professor Frost. She is a gift to the church as she is to her family and friends.
Frederick Frost, Carrie. Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East. Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2019. 144 pages. ISBN 978-0-8091-5391-6.
REVIEWER: Fr. Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, of Sociology, Religion & Culture, at The City University of New York, Baruch College and a priest in the Orthodox Church in America.