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.
My limited work as a doula makes me have big feelings about the birth story. I can no longer just sterilize or romanticize the nativity. My work attending births brings out something solid and stoic in me when my responsibility is to tend to others but when I process or think on my feelings about any birth story I am moved to tears. There are women who labor on the sides of borders and on boats and refugee camps and every possible ignoble setting the worst of our human greed and evil can through at itself and those births are so unbelievably holy in ways that I cannot pronounce. There are women who labor in American hospital parking lots because of inhumane hospital policies in many forms. There are women who go into hiding to give birth because there are more and more drug laws that target them with the intent to imprison them and take their children away without just cause.
Do you even know how annoying it is to be a cynical atheist doula who can’t stop thinking of the nativity every time I hear any birth story, ever? In the middle of it I’m pretty in-the-moment because the idea of serving God at every birth will make you pay attention. But I’m an atheist. But I know God is present at every birth regardless of outcome.
I will be going into training to be a death worker after a long, long, long flirtation with death as both as science and a fashion accessory. Funeral homes turned me off on what it meant to serve death because these places aren’t alive as death is, if you catch what I mean. They are chemical, sterile, and they exploit people and tell them how their death and grief should like rather than being an incredible universal force that is inextricably joined to life. Funeral homes all have this objective of trying to keep death and life separate. It’s the embalming and burial in ways to prevent decay. Earth takes death and makes life from it anew and our broken bodies are due to her. We have robbed earth of her necessary components of creation. I met one of the leaders of the home funeral and home death movements and I felt something in my gut give the same way I felt it when I met birth keepers.
Sex positivity is by and large a marketing term now but it was also the first lights of dawn that the body is holy, that these shamed cunts and assholes and dicks that are so fucking inconvenient at times are actually the tools of the divine and this message was complimented by body positivity as a whole that stressed that our bodies are worthy of love no matter what they look like or what kind of health they are in or what social message is associated with their presentation. My love of the body is my feminism, anti-racism, my class struggle. The underlining belief that all bodies are fit for God and that God resides in all bodies is a great place to draw anti-oppressive ideologies from and it’s a shame that the opposite occurs so much more often. This is when I doubt my belief in God. It’s not too long when I listen to people talk to God when I feel that we’re not totally on the same page and we mean different things but being around people who are totally and present in their bodies and in an integrated service to other bodies are when things feel most holy and sacred to me outside of a raw natural experience that is unadulterated by some social filter.
The stories of Christ are stories of the body and of touch. Jesus is really into eating with other people and lays hands on people all the time even though He even experiences fatigue. The Eucharist is the star event of Christian ritual worship. People comment on the ‘cannibal’ aspect of eating flesh and drinking blood but it’s a visceral reminder of the body. My body. Your body. God’s body. The body of a community. God doesn’t just make us endure these bodies, God experienced every part of them. Many people would say it’s blasphemy to say that Jesus came to earth for the very purpose of tasting wine (and getting a bit tipsy at a party) and sweating and getting filthy, stinking feet but I don’t see how this is so. God had to experience inopportune temple boners. God had to get the runs. God barbecued fish on the beach for His followers. God experienced thirst and relished in cool water in the dessert. God loved sweet smelling oils. God knew pleasure. God definitely knew pain. God knew birth and even death as someone experiencing grief and as the suffering and dying. God had to experience our corporeal reality and lay it all down for us and in a complete electrical circuit of life force. Mary’s are the alpha and the omega of the Christ story, the birth and the death, as well as agents of the body throughout the life. At Christ’s death, it is women who can bear witness to the barbaric cruelty of the state and the execution of someone they loved with all their bodies and souls who took on the responsibility for caring for an executed enemy of the state, the dead Body of Christ. I do revere the image of Mary holding the dead Christ over her lap and it’s often be said that renditions of these seen make it deliberately obtuse which Mary is cradling her beloved. Is it Mary, the Mother? Is it Mary, the whore? The most famous La Pieta is physically impossible. How could the young beautiful woman so gracefully accepting the burden of grief and the weight of her loved one be the mother of a 33-year-old man? More over, her proportions are such that she is massive. Her body is big enough to carry not only a divine pregnancy but also a divine death.
Meanwhile, when Jesus’ best dudebros couldn’t even stay up a whole night while he dealt with some shit.
How can anyone question the idea that Jesus was a feminist? Women are the only ones who really showed up for him when he was vulnerable.
The whole narrative of Christ reveals the faults of patriarchal law governing human bodies and its inability to see how sacred all our God-given flesh is. In fact, Jesus is constantly stepping right in between laws and human bodies and makes no distinctions whether this is a Roman law, a Jewish law, or even a biological law. Is there a crowd about to stone someone because a law says their sexual act was forbidden? Jesus gets in front of them. Trying to segregate people because of physical disability and illness? Jesus thinks you need to think again because He doesn’t see the body as ‘unclean’ ever no matter how oozy or contagious it is because all bodies are fit for God. Jesus reaffirms that there are soft laws that are really intended as LARP guidelines to give us a sense of identity, community, and solidarity with one another as well as a language for talking about and showing reverence for the divine.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for you to find a single passage in the bible where Jesus works with bureaucracy and upholds a corporeal punishment on anyone for anything. Go ahead, look. Come back and tell me when Jesus says its okay to stone anyone.
What all of this comes back to on the broadest level the most fundamental and recurrent pagan mythos of a sky god meeting an earth goddess. Less a dichotomy to be enforced and more a duality to behold, the body is a perfect site for such exploration and it is clear how it is holy. We are both matter and also something immaterial, as is all of the earth and the universe.