The Transformative Presence of the Theotokos: Aid in Our Suffering, Iliness, and Healing

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A . in Religious Studies


Department of Religious Studies


Meghan Henning


This project seeks to approach how the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an aid in our transformation toward wholeness in light of the human experiences of disability and suffering. From a disability studies hermeneutic, the term “wholeness” is reframed through an examination of Paul’s theology of weakness identified in 2 Corinthians 12 where he boasts of his thorn in the flesh. In this new framework, weakness, difference, and dependency are reimagined as sources of unity and as integral aspects of the human experience. From this perspective, wholeness and healing are not achieved by the return to a previous state of idealized health or the attainment of perfectly abled bodies, but through the indwelling of the crucified Christ in the believer. For early Christians, illness, suffering, and death were intelligible through an integration with the ascetic way of life which maintained a mindfulness of death and an understanding that the believer was called to orient themselves fully to the cross in both times of illness and health. In dialogue with an ascetic framework, this concept of the indwelling of Christ found in 2 Cor. 12 is identified as a Christification of the human person, also known as deification or theosis. Bringing together a disability studies hermeneutic and the ascetic framework, wholeness is further clarified as the enfleshment of the crucified and transfigured Christ who transforms our sufferings into sources of life. After establishing that the fullness of the human person is accomplished through mystical union with the crucified Christ, this project brings into conversation the ancient conceptions of illness, suffering, and healing with early Christian devotion to Mary to uncover new ways to respond to the modern experiences of disability and suffering. Through a survey of various biblical, extracanonical, and apocryphal texts throughout antiquity, this work explores Mary’s intercessory role in the lives of early Christians who called upon her in times of need or distress. Romanos’s hymnography from the sixth century portrays Mary as one whose voice penetrates both the heavenly and earthly realms. In the examined hymns, Mary speaks the joy of the resurrection even amid the crushing grief she feels in coming to learn of her son’s eventual death on the cross. The participatory nature of this early Christian devotional practice led believers to integrate their voices with the Virgin’s, uttering a collective cry of deep pain and resurrectional hope. This cry, merging both the agony of death and the joy of new life, serves as a movement toward a more complete restoration of the crucified Christ in the human person. Together in this dialogue, disability studies, early Christian asceticism, and Marian studies upend our traditional notions of weakness and strength. These discourses challenge us to grasp that our call to transformation in this life and the next is not grounded in the removal of suffering and difference, but in the recognition of the glorified and crucified Christ within ourselves and among our communities.


Theology, Religion, Theotokos, illness

Rights Statement

Copyright © 2021, author