Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33
Christmastime provides the perfect opportunity to contemplate the feminine reflection of God manifested in women. For at the center of the glorious birth of Christ, we find a female – Mary, the virgin mother of our Lord. The fact that God chose to bring us a savior through a woman merits our attention. Jesus did not merely appear out of thin air or descend from the clouds as a babe. Instead, Our Lord became incarnate in the womb of his Mother and came to us through a natural birth on that momentous day two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is clear that femininity expressed in motherhood is something precious in the eyes of God. In this context, we also find a man at Mary’s side, Saint Joseph, who continuously supported, protected, and, unquestionably, respected Our Lady during those exceptional days. This standard, so profoundly enacted by Saint Joseph during the birth of Christ, is the one to which Our Lord calls all men. Ultimately, we find this same nature in Our Savior Jesus Christ, the supreme model of manhood. As our modern culture perpetuates the objectification of women, it is crucial for men to uphold women by following Christ’s model and recognizing the God-given dignity of women as revealed to us in His word.
First, it bears value to recall the place of gender in our identities. As written in Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Therefore, we know men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God. As described by Blessed Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of woman, Mulieris Dignitatem, we can draw from this that both men and woman are human beings to an equal degree. We each portray complementary masculine and feminine qualities of God. Furthermore, Bl. John Paul II notes that there is no way to characterize what is human without referencing both masculinity and femininity.
We may ask, “What happened?!” Why throughout history and in most realms of today’s world we cannot find such equality? The answer lies in the fall of humanity when sin entered the world. In Genesis we read God addressing Eve after she and Adam consumed the forbidden fruit, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). Note the order of events; it was not the original intent of God that this inequality would be present, but it came into existence with sin. After the moral order was disrupted after the fall, men came be inclined to objectify women. Of course, this is by no means an excuse for men. In fact, all of humanity should be correctly opposed to this tendency. Bl. John Paul II notes in Mulieris Dignitatem that although women obviously bear the greater pains of this reality, it also lessens the true dignity of men as well.
Bl. John Paul II also cautions us that in our just aim of restoring equality between men and women, we should be no means “masculinize” woman. By “this path, women will not ‘reach fulfillment’, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness.” Rather, in the pursuit of equality, we must preserve diversity. It is in this way that a woman saves and treasures the unique image and likeness of God shown by her femininity. This is surely a challenge for our generation as we grapple with what is truly feminine. In my experience, far more women renounce what is considered feminine than men renouncing what is deemed masculine. It seems that at least part of the problem is that femininity is sadly confused with a weak, tacky “girly” stereotype that is simply unappealing to many women. This stereotype is almost opposite from the nature of our feminine role models, like the Virgin Mary. While all of humanity is to blame in one way or another for this confusion, men have a tendency to emphasize weakness in women out of insecurity of their own strength. By this, I mean not physical strength, but strength of character and resolve. If men would recognize and value this trait in females, they would reveal greater fortitude not only in women, but in themselves as well.
We can reason that the failure of men to uphold the dignity of femininity is in large part due to a crisis of true masculinity. While the problem of masculinity in this culture is a topic for another posting, Christian men know that the remedy to this lies in aligning one’s life with the absolute exemplar of manhood, Jesus Christ. When we look to the gospels to find Christ’s treatment of women, we find that it was exceptional, especially given the cultural and religious norms of his time period. Again in Mulieris Dignitatem, Bl. John Paul II notes that we cannot find anything in the actions or words of Jesus which show the discrimination against women which was so characteristic in the culture of His era. Bl. John Paul II writes further, “It is universally admitted – even by people with a critical attitude towards the Christian message – that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promoter of women’s true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity. At times this caused wonder, surprise, often to the point of scandal.” It is a gift from God that man has such an incredible role model in the most important man who ever lived, Jesus Christ, and that women can always be reminded of their true worth and equality through Him.
An example of Jesus taking Himself “to the point of scandal” is readily apparent in his dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not the cultural custom of His time to be talking to a woman alone at such a scene, no less a Samaritan woman. His own apostles “were amazed that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). Jesus also knew the sin of this female as he says to her, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). Yet, He all the same proclaims the good news to her, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14). We learn through gospel passages such as these that Jesus shares the truths of the kingdom of God with women as well as men.
Perhaps equally as striking is the example of Christ encountering the woman accused of adultery. Jesus tells the crowd ready to stone the woman, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” and once they dissipate instructs the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:7,11). Christ takes the attention off of the woman and instead focuses on the sins of the accusers. As Bl. John Paul II notes, the scenario of this woman is sadly repeated over and over again throughout history. How often is the sin of man hidden, while that of the woman is revealed? The man, also to blame for sins of adultery, does not face the same test and humiliation as the woman. However, Jesus Christ reveals to us that God is aware of all of our transgressions and insists that men also repent and face their wrongdoings.
We can also turn to the context of marriage. St. Paul writes, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife…” (Ephesians 5:22-23). This way of thinking was not foreign to the prevailing custom of the time. The insight of this passage can be understood in light of the previous line in Ephesians, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Bl. John Paul II writes that all motives of the subordination of woman to man must be considered in the context of mutual subordination. It is this mutual subordination for Christ, not only that of the wife to the husband, but also of the husband to his wife which “must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior and customs” (Mulieris Dignitatem). Clearly then, any subordination of woman to man must never lead to exploitation. Rather, Christ calls men to a more intimate relationship with his spouse built on love instead of use and symbolic of the great love Christ has for His Church.
Christ calls each and every one of us to the highest standard as we embrace God’s true plan for humanity. In this way, Jesus specifically instructs men, “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). This teaching and all others of Christ are inseparable from authentic masculinity. On a grand scale, His example commands all men to actively defend the dignity of our sisters. Our faith teaches us that this mission is crucial; the passive approach to the degrading culture of our time is wholly insufficient. Yet, we need not despair in this challenge for we are never alone. Whether in Mary’s womb or as the babe in swaddling clothes, Jesus was truly present to Saint Joseph through the greatest trials in protecting his spouse and child. So too Christ is with us “until the end of the age.” We fight together to realize in our world the words of Saint Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Check out Mulieris Dignitatem by Bl. John Paul II: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem_en.html)