I have a Christian friend who drank deeply from the streams of radical feminism in her youth. This ideology sank tentacles deep into her mind. As her relationship with Christ develops, a redeemed “Christian Feminism” has taken root, blossomed and spread out in her soul. The old feminism is slowly consumed and eradicated by the new. I have seen a similar work taking place within myself – a false masculinity being supplanted by the real deal. With so many mixed messages from almost every source, it is truly difficult to answer the questions: “What does it mean to be a man?” or “What does it mean to be a woman?” Where is the guidebook to this? Who came up with all this anyway? And why?
Unbeknownst to most people engaging in the sexual embrace, they are actually mirroring, or in some way participating in two central mysteries of the universe. The first and most important mystery is the inner life of God, also known as the inner life of the Most Blessed Trinity. Let me explain. The mutual love of a husband and wife mirrors the mutual love of the Father and the Son within the Trinity. The result of the mutual love of a husband and wife is a baby. The result of the mutual love of the Father and the Son within the Trinity is the Holy Spirit (cf. Gen 1:26-28). The individuals in a family (husband, wife and child) therefore mirror the persons within the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Husband, Wife, Child ≈ Father, Son, Holy Spirit
But those engaging in, or capable of engaging in the sexual embrace also mirror a second cosmic mystery. They mirror the mystery of God’s saving love for humanity. Reader take note: This is so crucial because it is from this truth that the mystery of gender is derived. Masculinity mirrors God’s loving pursuit of humanity. Femininity mirrors humanity’s reception and response to that loving pursuit. Masculinity and femininity mirror this mystery of God’s saving love for us and thereby draw us into its power. We cannot ask the question: “What does it mean to be a man?” or “What does it mean to be a woman?” without having a basic grasp upon God’s love for His people (cf. John Paul II, General Audiences of September 15 and 22, 1982).
Let’s examine the contours of this mystery. God loves humanity (us) as a man would love a woman. Humanity (hopefully) receives God’s saving love and responds in love as a woman would respond to a man. As the prototype of masculinity, the Divine Lover takes the initiative to pursue humanity with His proposal of love. As the prototype of femininity, humanity receives this proposal and responds in love. In the fullness of time, the Divine Lover comes in the flesh as the divine Bridegroom (Christ) to marry humanity, His beloved Bride (His Church, cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). We human beings, as members of the Church, receive the Bridegroom’s love and respond in love as would a Bride. Just as a man and a woman are united as one body in marriage, so too are the Divine Bridegroom and His Bride (the Church) united in love – the Body of Christ. God in Christ, the prototypical masculine lover, has gone to great lengths to pursue His beloved, us. And humanity, the Church, the prototypical feminine beloved should go to great lengths to receive and respond to this love (cf. Isaiah 54:5). God & Humanity ≈ Christ & Church ≈ Man & Woman
We see in this mystery of God’s love for His people or in Christ’s love for His Church the prototype for masculinity and femininity. Gender and “gender roles” were not arbitrarily cooked up by some sadistic divinity intent upon spoiling our fun. Rather, they flow from and reflect a central mystery of the universe! Masculinity mirrors the action, the initiative and the strength of the Divine Lover. Femininity mirrors the receptivity, relative delicacy and fruitful response of the beloved (us, the Church) – an active receptivity. Masculinity and femininity – down to our very bodies with their specific anatomy and hormonal makeup – mirror a profound reality, a deep mystery. Every time John calls Sally for a date, every time Sally responds to that call, we catch a glimpse of the divine romance.
Femininity actually embodies more than humanity and the Church, it embodies all that God has created and loves. This is described majestically in the Bible, in the book of Revelation, Chapter 12: “And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child. . .” This cosmic woman embodies the entirety of the universe and all people. And this mother is pregnant. We are fortunate that Heaven has given us a visual image of this Scripture passage via St. Juan Diego in 1521 – The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Of course, we know that this woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary received the approach of the Divine Lover and responded: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary embodies femininity.
I often wondered at the grand appeal of the romantic comedies penned by the British novelist Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, etc. I finally realized that the magnetism of her novels was to be found not so much in the romantic sentiment, but rather in their ability to somehow mystically convey the underlying divine drama. In Pride and Prejudice, we follow Mr. Darcy’s romantic pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet. The tension between these two characters makes manifest a far deeper reality. It sounds a primal chord in the human heart. There is something that touches on the divine in romantic love, or rather mirrors it and draws us into its mystery. As the daughter of an English clergyman, Jane Austen was not unfamiliar with divine mysteries.
We can look to our first parents for some insights into the original contours of gender. We read that Adam is given a certain dominion over the earth (Genesis 2:15-20). Men have an innate identity linked to the taming of creation, carving things out of the wilderness (think testosterone). At the same time, the name “Eve” means “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). Femininity is closely linked to maternity (think estrogen). Due to the extreme age of the events it narrates, the details from Genesis on our first parents are sparse. We must look to a “New Adam” and a “New Eve” for deeper insights into the mystery of gender. They are to be found in the persons of Jesus and Mary. Real masculinity and real femininity are personified in the lives and Hearts of Jesus and Mary respectively.
Distraught by my inability to make a decision, a Puerto Rican friend of mine once chided me with: “Be a man!” She wanted me to take action, make a decision, take some initiative – DO SOMETHING. She came from a culture where gender was more closely moored to its primal roots. The man of today is pressured by numerous cultural forces into being more sensitive, non-authoritarian, infinitely flexible, indecisive – more effeminate. We see evidence of this in sitcoms like “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Radical feminism is at least in part to blame for this trend. The image of the male “doofus” bumbling through life has now become commonplace in the English-speaking world. The male icons held high in our culture exemplify irresponsible adolescent behavior coupled with a decision making-inability that undermines masculinity. Our world is looking for strong, responsible men who can take decisive action vis-à-vis life’s challenges.
Furthermore, contraception and abortion have detached femininity from its maternal moorings and it is now adrift. Over the last 10 years, we have seen a slow shift toward feminine gender dominance in our culture. From time immemorial, masculinity has had a certain ascendancy over the feminine in Western Culture. Over the past decade, we have seen femininity move to the forefront and masculinity take a back seat. This is not true in all places and in all demographics, but overall, the shift has occurred. The women of yesteryear complained of being “patronized.” The young men of today increasingly endure being “matronized,” that is, marginalized and discriminated against for being a male. In some respects, many women have taken on those very male characteristics against which they fought so hard. Women need to be allowed and encouraged to embrace their own femininity.
The joy of living below the Mason-Dixon line is that one still encounters men who are truly men and the women who are truly women. It is in this that they find their strength and a great personal integration. Men are not so interested in getting in touch with their feminine side here. The women in Dixie are not concerned with attempting to act like men. Everyone is happier. In an age of perpetual gender bending, masculinity and femininity deeply and authentically lived are sorely needed. The reality of gender draws us into a profound divine mystery – the drama of God’s passionate love for humanity. And Jesus and Mary mark out the way to this redeemed masculinity and femininity.
For further reading, see John Eldredge, Wild at Heart and Captivating; John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem [On the Dignity and Vocation of Women] and The Genius of Women; Fr. Larry Richards, Esto Vir [Be a Man!].
A special note of thanks to my crackerjack editor, A.B., without whose help this article would be sunk.