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Incarnation as Good News for Women

Giotto Ognissanti Madonna
Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna, c. 1306-1310 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 3 of an Advent series on incarnation; read part 1 here and part 2 here.

The season of Advent reminds us that God took on human flesh; it also reminds us that this process requires women willing to allow God to work through their bodies. Women play vital roles in the Christmas story: Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; Anna, awaiting the Messiah in the temple; the Old Testament women — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth — mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. And always Mary, whose faith and courage made her the mother of Jesus.

It’s easy to focus on the men around Jesus: the genealogies, the shepherds, the wise men, the apostles. But the physicality of the Incarnation demands that women be a part of the story, and indeed we see women present from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, with Jesus at every key moment of the gospel story.

Jesus may have become God incarnate as a human man, but from Mary onward we never see Jesus treat women as anything less than co-heirs of his kingdom, equally created in the image of God. This is especially important because western civilization from before Jesus' time all the way through to ours has devalued bodies and women, elevating men and reason instead.

Patriarchy has been prevalent for most of human history, it seems — one of the first sins out of Eden. But in Greek culture, patriarchy combined with Platonism led to the association of women with the body and men with the mind. This association has morphed over the last two and a half millennia, but it still underlies assumptions about women: women are hormonal and emotional; women are vain and overly concerned with their bodies; women are less capable of logic and reason.

But the Incarnation upends these ideas about women and bodies: both are crucial to God’s plan for redeeming and restoring humanity.

This is good news indeed for women.

At least in modern-day western culture (my own experience), women are constantly either told that their bodies are a problem or reduced to simply their bodies. The checkout lane at the supermarket shows both: discipline your body through diet and exercise — so that you can wield the power of a perfectly shaped body.

And we can’t feel superior as Christians, since churches are seldom much better: purity culture, along with the even wider-spread Billy Graham (or Mike Pence) rule, frame women’s bodies as inherently sinful, so tempting that they must be covered up and kept away from men. Additionally, churches that forbid women from holding leadership positions often do so with the argument that women are more easily deceived and less capable of leadership — code for being less rational than men.

We should certainly question the association of women with the body, since men are no less embodied and women are no less rational. But devaluing women tends to accompany devaluing bodies, and the Incarnation directly challenges both by elevating women and bodies.

What does this mean for women today, that Jesus came into the world through the body of a faithful woman?

It means that the process of childbirth is important labor, and ought to be valued and respected rather than regarded as an inconvenience to employers and the non-pregnant.

It means that women are more than their physicality, and especially more than their sexuality: Mary’s body was important, but equally important was her faith, her consent to bear the son of God.

It means that women are not dangerous temptresses incapable of not seducing men; instead, they are companions to Jesus and vital workers in his kingdom from the time of the patriarchs through the present day.

It means that women, like men, are fully created in the image of God with all the privileges and responsibilities of such a high position within creation.

The Incarnation is good news for all, since God loved his creation enough to become part of that creation. And for women, devalued, sexualized, reduced to their bodies, the Incarnation is very good news indeed.