Tag Archives: Christmas

A Catalogue of Consent

8 Dec

Three kinds of yeses are on my mind these days:

  • 3-minute meditation last week over at Loyola Press was all about Mary’s yes, her Fiat. (No, not the Fiat Frankie drove in around Rio last year.) The Annunciation, the visitation Gabriel made to Mary to announce God’s plan for her to bear the Son of God, culminates in Luke 1:38 with Mary’s consent: “be it done to me according to thy word.” Fun fact: Latin doesn’t have a word for yes, so instead the Church uses fiat, “let it be done.”
  • Students at my school are joining students across the country to push for adoption of a “yes means yes” policy. Under this model, sexual consent should be clear, unpressured, sober, and enthusiastic (although the enthusiastic bit might complicate mixed ace-allo relationships).
  • Some people I know were asked by their super if they would volunteer to do extra work on a day they weren’t scheduled for (“no pressure”). Of course they all said yes, because that’s how power works. But that yes can’t exactly have been consensual, because by virtue of the power imbalance it can’t have been unpressured.

These last two kinds of yes have given me pause about the first kind. Mary was asked by God — you know, your local omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent divine powerhouse — to donate herself to an eternal commitment to birthing, raising, and attending to God. And to be fair to Gabe, the gospel account didn’t even really involve asking Mary how she felt about this whole Mother-of-God thing and if she was down with it; the angel was the messenger for how God’s will was going to work out in the next nine months plus. This is exactly not how a “yes means yes” policy would work. Those who are in a position of significant power can’t expect true consent from those that power affects. If God were a dean and Mary a student, he’d be courting sexual harassment charges at minimum.

To put it into context as a good scholar should, though, extreme humility has a long history as a key to salvation. Although Mary’s circumstances are complicated by gender, her fiat is not the only one in the gospels. Before he gave himself over to crucifixion, Christ found himself in the Garden of Gethsemane imploring God to figure out a way to make human salvation happen without his being tortured and killed in the process — and he begged not once, but twice: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. … My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42 DRV). Of course, he likewise assented in the end. The Imitatio Christi was a big deal for Christian devotion in the medieval and early modern periods; meekness, selflessness, emotional impressionability, and of course humility were core virtues for Christian men and women alike. Given this heritage, it’s not surprising that homilies and devotional texts continue to uphold Mary’s fiat as a model for imitation.

Not surprising, but still worth interrogating. A good priest won’t let the “wives, be subordinate to your husbands” reading from Colossians 2 go by on Feast of the Holy Family without some contextualizing commentary. If I ever get to be a deacon, I would do the responsible thing and make it a priority to use this reading for a conversation about consent.

Because I think a redeeming quality of that problematic gospel verse is the very fact that Mary gave consent even though she wasn’t invited to consent. Gabriel came to tell Mary what was going to happen to her; she didn’t have to agree about what would happen — the text doesn’t imply that it would have happened anyway, but it doesn’t rule that out either — and she didn’t have to agree so immediately and unquestioningly (well, unquestioningly once the question of biological possibility was solved). The Incarnation is no Leda story. If Mary’s ready “bring it” is anything to judge by, enthusiasm definitely belongs to the humble.

The Incarnal Christ?

1 Dec

It’s Advent! Happy New Year! Even though my parish failed spectacularly on the liturgical-spectacle front this weekend (no incense, no Mass of Creation — and I had to pull up substitute Latin lyrics to “O Come, Emmanuel” on my phone), it’s still that time of year when we think about Christ’s appearance in human form — the Incarnation.

Christ’s Incarnation is a big deal in my research and, increasingly, my creative writing. The sacramental paradox of a spiritual being who took on material flesh greatly appeals to my sense of aesthetics. To wit, on my Christmas list this year is, again, a statuette (or icon; I’m getting desperate) of the Crucifixion with Christ’s women — the BVM, Mary Magdalen, and Veronica — standing beneath the Cross. This is partly Ewa Kuryluk’s fault: in Veronica and Her Cloth, she wrote about how the medievals understood flesh as feminine, especially since Christ took on his mother’s flesh at the Incarnation; the feminine qualities of Christ’s flesh are nowhere more apparent than when it bleeds on the Cross. But, as usual, I’ll also blame the Jesuits. After all, they’re the ones who introduced me to the devotional practice of “seeing God in all things,” including the material creation around us — in the sparkling rivulets of water over damp leaves in the ditch, in the warm breathing snuggles of a rabbit in my arms, and, of course, in the faces of my dear friends.

One Jesuit in particular — everyone’s #2 favorite Jesuit, after the Pope — Fr. James Martin focuses on Christ’s human face in his recent book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The introduction devotes several paragraphs to details about the particularities of Christ’s human life: the everyday activities that didn’t necessarily make the cut in the Gospels, visions of what he ate, how he worked, where he lived, and what he desired. Even sexually.

Excerpt from Jesus: A Pilgrimage

Excerpt from Jesus: A Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ

I get the impulse to sexualize Christ — I do. People have been doing it for centuries, Renaissance artists included, as Leo Steinberg has written. And sexuality is, without question, one of many components of what the Jezzies call “the human condition.”

But the impulse to state as fact that, because he is/was human, Christ must have had sexual desires feels entirely too close to dehumanizing people who don’t. And there is no question that these people exist, whether or not they identify on the asexuality spectrum. Gays and lesbians are only starting to recover from years of being described as non-human, and I would hope that this would be a lesson learned against dehumanizing asexuals. Sexual desire might be a part of the human condition, but it’s neither sufficient nor necessary for the state of being human.

In one of my undergrad philosophy classes we talked about the definition of “human” — in the context of the ancient Greeks, it would seem, a human is a rational bipedal creature. But we wouldn’t call a double-amputee lacking two legs on which to walk “not-human”; and babies are hardly rational, but we still ascribe humanity to them. Legs, reason, and — I would add — sexual desire are all options in the catalogue of the human condition, emphasis on the optional. It is something else, maybe even somethings else, that makes us human.

So, then, what makes Christ fully human? I’m not entirely sure — we haven’t figured out how to define humanity yet. To me, it is as much a mystery as what makes Christ fully divine — itself as mysterious as the mystery of how humanity and divinity meet in the Incarnation.