Gender as Icon and Vocation (Part I)


My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Our Only True God,

by Dr. Philip Mamalakis, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts

What I'd like to talk about today is: How are we to understand and respond to those who change cultural perceptions of gender, sexuality, and marriage? How are we to understand and respond to those who change their sexual identity or claim that it's unfair to deprive some people of marriage just because they are "gay"? How do we equip our children to navigate these issues and the world they live in with compassion and faith?

What I would like to discuss is specifically how to respond to those who come to us who are struggling with same-sex attraction, and how we respond from an Orthodox perspective. I'm not prepared to discuss how the Church should position herself in this political arena and in what's going on [in what] we might call this fight that's happening, because I'm not sure that as a Church we're necessarily looking for a fight on these issues.

However, we do need to remain firm in our beliefs. We cannot acquiesce or change what we believe based on any sort of external pressures. We cannot abandon what we believe to be true and real, which means I am specifically interested in discussing how to respond to our sons and our daughters who come to us with these particular struggles, who are confused about the presence of these struggles, and who aren't finding clear answers, either from the political right or the left, on how to address this.

And I suggest a gentle approach to these topics. For those who might equate a gentle approach to this sensitive topic as somehow wishy-washy or betraying the faith, my intent is to articulate my understanding of our Orthodox faith on these issues. I do believe that the firmness of our faith comes forth more clearly when we present it in its beauty and its love, and clarity is what's required on this issue.

So I'd like to begin by offering my understanding of how the Church understands gender and marriage based on the work that I've been doing over the past two years with Andrew Williams, a graduate student of Holy Cross, and my colleague, Dr. Tim Patitsas, the professor of ethics at Holy Cross, and also Georgia Williams, another graduate student. We spent several years researching, studying, and praying about these issues that's compiled in a program called "Freedom to Live in the Image of God." I add these thoughts and these ideas to what I see as the necessary theological discussions and conversations that we need to have as a Church in discerning and navigating how to respond.

So: understanding gender, it is clear in Genesis that God created male and female. There are two distinct genders. Any confusion of this distinction between the two would undermine that truth that's revealed to us. What is less clear, apart from the biological distinctions, is what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. On the surface, it's hard to argue the fact that boys and girls are different. That seems simple enough, and many parents notice when they have sons and daughters that boys are different [from] girls...

...It seems as though masculine and feminine are not so clearly two separate things, but they seem to exist in men and in women, in both genders. In fact, the first human was created male and female in Genesis 1:27, and according to Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Eve was already inside of Adam. The first person was separated into man and woman. In the second Chapter of Genesis, woman was taken out of man, and when Adam saw Eve, he recognized her as similar to himself: "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." In fact, men and women share the same human nature. Each of us as male and female came from the union of a man and a woman. We see aspects of masculine and feminine in both sexes. Each of us, male and female, is in the image of God, and each male and female is considered an icon of Christ. Christ was a man, yet he saved all of humanity, men and women, by taking on human nature as a male.

When we look at the models of Christian life, men and women saints, sharp gender distinctions and gender roles don't hold up so tightly either. It seems as though in our tradition men and women share the same spiritual nature. We don't have "men's spirituality" and "women's spirituality." We share the same path to salvation. The fruits of the Spirit, which we are all called to acquire, they show no gender distinction. Exhortations for holiness and acquiring the virtues are the same for men and for women.

In fact, Saint Maximus the Confessor refers to the masculine and feminine powers of the soul within each one of us. The irascible persons, or the drive, are considered male, while the appetitive or concupiscent passions of desire are considered female. In Greek, the word for anger is a masculine noun, and the word for desire is a feminine nou. Saint Maximus the Confessor interprets Saint Paul's statement that "in heaven there is no male or female" to mean that there is no anger or desire. Saint John Chrysostom writes, "The wrestlings are varied, but the crown is one. The contests are manifold; the prize is the same," when speaking about the salvation of both genders. "Here, since the contest is wholly concerning the soul, the lists are open to each sex."

What do we see in the Lives of the Saints? Well, we see all the virtues in both genders. We see strong, courageous, gentle, and sensitive men and women, Christ-like servants who are very clearly male and female, but who don't fit into narrow stereotypes of gender. But there's no gender confusion, either. Christ Himself, a real man, revealed to us that to be king of the universe meant to get down on your knees and wash the feet of His disciples, and ultimately, to suffer being mocked and crucified, laying down His life. And the Mother of God, a real woman, we call the Champion general. In fact, do you know who the patron Saint of the All-Male Peninsula of Mount Athos is? A female. She's in charge!

...Based on what we've said, men and women are clearly similar, but also different, and somehow related. We can't reduce gender to any behavior or attributes, but we cannot blur the boundaries between male and female. So what distinction do we see right from the first chapters of Genesis and throughout the writings of Our Fathers? It's in the relationships between men and women. Right away, we see that men are called to be the head, and women are called to be helpmate.

But this distinction is a relational term. In Genesis 2:18 we see that God made Adam and gave him dominion over all creation, and then made for Adam a helpmate, a woman. In Ephesians we read, "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the Head of the Church." And so Saint John Chrysostom writes, "Let us take as our fundamental position that the husband occupies the place of the head, and the wife the place of the body." It seems as that the key to understanding gender, then, is in relationship and in icon. That is to say, there is no way to define one sex or gender without the other, because I can't be the head unless I have a body; that the head is a relational term referring to the presence of a body or someone to lead. And my wife is a helpmate only in relationship to a head.

Being the head as man, can only happen in relationship to a body, and to be a helpmate can only happen in relationship to a head, and this relationship is an icon of Christ and the Church. Rather than thinking of male and female in terms of some abstract, static characteristics or definitions, the more useful expression of gender that I think reflects how I understand our Orthodox Tradition is to think of gender in terms of icon and vocation, or calling. That is to say, our gender, male or female, is something we are called to become in relationships in Christ, that my calling is to be a man, the head, and my wife's calling to be the woman, a helpmate, is fulfilled in our calling to be united with Christ, and we see in this a reconciliation of the division of the genders that happened initially.

To understand the Church's ideas about gender, we need to understand that each one of us, male and female, is an icon of Christ. We are image-bearers and microcosms. Women and men are both icons of Christ, and through our baptisms, we participate in Christ's vocation, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament offices of priest, king, and prophet. Christ calls each of us, male and female, as children of God to take on his three vocations: priest, king, and prophet.

We are not all called to be ordained priests, but through our baptisms we become of a holy priesthood, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (I Peter 2:5). We know that every man and woman is united to Christ through our baptisms, and our vocations as Christians, men and women alike, are to be priests by offering ourselves wholly to God and to others in service as an icon of Christ's self-offering and self-emptying on the Cross.

(To be continued)

Excerpt from speech given on November 2, 2012 at Orthodox Institute 2012: Culture, Morality, Spirituality:




"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George