Christ and The Women Of The Body

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta

 

It’s been said before and it will be said again, but Catholicism has a palpable paganism to it that is very hard to miss. It’s there in the saints and the relics and the icons, many of whom are directly appropriated or adapted from many traditions, myths, and regions of the world. There are the rituals, the costumes, the long holy festivals, the murmuring, and decadence. Catholicism is deeply conservative but I always grew up thinking of Protestants as being conservative and severe with their prohibitions against gambling and drinking and smoking. An old school Irish Catholic was the Monseigneur of my childhood parish and he saw no sin in reviewing the racing form with a cigar in his mouth just outside the church and he enjoyed beers in our small downtown and he certainly knew his way around a swear word or two.

On one hand, any good Catholic will scowl at the comparison to paganism but start up talk about stripping the church of its art, music, pageantry, statues, incense, strained glass windows, or Mariology and see what kind of reaction you get. Get rid of the saints? Are you out of your mind? How on earth would you get through the passage of ordinary time? Who is going to intercede on your behalf for anything from getting a semi-sinful relative out of purgatory or preventing you from choking to death on a fishbone as a child?

Though the Catholic Church has absolutely condemned the body in many of its teachings, it affirms it when it doesn’t overly concern itself with micromanaging the immediate affairs of its congregants. When the political battle for the legal status of abortion is removed, one can see an absolute adoration of fertility. The fixation on suffering is that on the corporeal experience of pain and immutable corporeal reality. The central thesis of the religion is that God took human form and experienced everything that the body does to better know and love us and out failings. It was to take on a first person experience of this body that God designed rather than the view of the creator. There is an active theology of the body at play and this hardly the first or the most astute commentary on it so much as a slight furtherance to encourage consideration of a preferential option for female body workers as those who tend to something sacred.

I say this as I continue to move from solidly from sex work to birth work and into death work. These rites have been largely in the domain of the feminine for a long time but under patriarchal capitalism shifted into the domain of men and law. Sex work is criminal and so often is independent birth and death work by women. When men manage these affairs, there is less legal interference and often the law is constructed to privilege their process of obtaining control in the first place.  The more I serve the body in its sexual, reproductive, and deconstructive modalities the more I can see that we are not in charge. I can point to things I know to be biological law and I can point to instances that break those laws. I know that we do not have ultimate control of life or death. Working with sexuality, birth, death and also with harm reduction for substance use and overdose compels these thoughts after awhile.

The Christ story is one of God born unassisted from a broke teenager burdened by laws that condemned her reproductive choices: an unmarried pregnancy was already a major problem within her own culture but on top of that there was a death sentence ordered for her child. Mary and her son, Jesus, were in mortal danger of patriarchal laws claiming authority over her reproductive choice. She had to be a brave young woman not in some ‘not choosing abortion’ trite way but because she was willing to violate all kinds of laws (in modern parlance, Mary would be violating federal, state, county, and city laws all at once and would probably have Interpol on her ass today for moving across borders to commit these crimes) to carry out God’s will. It’s exceptionally notable that she gave birth unassisted because some douchebag innkeeper wouldn’t even make room for a miracle in his hotel.  The fabled Magi of the bible are pagan astrologers of traditions that are not the regional economic dominants who foretold this revolutionary birth in their own traditions but there are also medieval traditions that talk of midwives who heard the cries of the Christ child and came immediately to attend and assist in the stable.

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The Whore in the House of Jesse

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. (Hebrews 11:31)

Rahab the harlot lived on the margins of her society, literally. In the late bronze age when her story takes place historically, it was common for people to build housing adjacent to or within fortification walls like that of Jericho. She was a harlot who kept her family afloat by keeping her tavern well. Rabbinical literature cites Rahab as one of the most beautiful women of the bible alongside Abigail, Sarah, and Esther. She is marginalized by her location within Jericho, living right on the perimeter just under the skin of the city and also metaphorically by her harlotry. But, it is this exact marginalization that makes her God’s servant. She is a woman very much in the right place at the right time with the right job: a whore whose tavern borders the town barrier on the evening of a reconnaissance mission before conquering it.

Sex Working and The Bible has some incredible commentary about this story from a roundtable discussion between incredible sex workers whose work has left inedible marks in the history of human rights activism. The ability to faciliate their analysis and to center it as valuable theological commentary is something that is rare and precious. Ipsen points out that Mary Magdalene is debatable but Rahab really is not unless you want to absurdly hold semantic ground. She’s a vital character to study because she is lauded by the bible for her actions and held as a model.

What the commentary from the sex workers really grabbed onto was the disenfranchisement that Rahab must have felt to be able to sell her city out. She is loyal to her house but she is not loyal to her city and based purely on what she had heard about the Isrealites and their escape from slavery with the miraculous support of their God who stands with the marginalized. To be loyal to her city would be loyalty to the hierarchy she is subject to and she hitches a ride to freedom with this quick and decisive act. It is very much what makes her a worthy matriarch for this powerful and divinely inspired lineage: she does what it takes to take care of her family and she has a keen vision of freedom and liberation.

And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death. And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee. (Joshua 2:13-14)

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