The Icon of the Holy Family

March 19th 2021: happy solemnity of Saint Joseph. Since December 8th 2020 we have been celebrating a year of Saint Joseph. That date marked the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of patronage for the whole church ascribed to the spouse of the blessed Virgin Mary. Today begins a year marked by Pope Francis for the Holy Family. It is five years since the publication of Amoris Laetitia. But this post will not be a commentary or instruction or introduction on that document. Nor, in taking up the theme of “The Icon of the Holy Family” will I speak about any other magisterial documents. I wish to think about men and women in Scripture.  

The particular question I hope to engage is quite philosophical. I wish to interact with, and propose interpretations for, some of the more polemical biblical texts which might compare and contrast men and women. Further, given that the revelation of scripture will have profound things to tell us about the “differences” between men and women, we hope to gain some insight into the “contrast” of the sexes, insight that is not only helpful, but also salvific. Spoiler alert: in the end this will turn in to an Ode to the Blessed Virgin Mary, sung to the best of my limited capabilities. I don’t think Saint Joseph will mind.

So here we go. The Bible is rather clear about biological maleness and femaleness being part of creation, also the “locus” of marriage, with the integral “invitation” for the blessing of children. Creation is “very good” when man and woman can “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28,31). The Gospels present abundant affirmation of this (e.g. Lk. 1:25). In today’s lingo we would say that God’s revelation about creation (by all such accounts that deserve the name Christian) is definitively “binary” in terms of gender.[i] So yes, it is one thing to affirm a conjugal, procreative understanding of marriage and childbearing. But here I wish to consider the loving, just, and moral interplay of both sexes in societies: both genders within the family, the smallest of communities, and both genders in the Church setting and in states or communities.

Here let us survey the contrast of men and women in some pertinent New Testament writings. In doing so it will be no surprise, to point out as many have before, that parts of the Christian worldview and Gospel message seem to be severely restrictive for women. The impressions of these texts are often that women must always be “controlled” by men, and should thus be reduced to a kind of slavery by constant commands to “obey” men, within this so-called Christian world. So let us take some of the more polemical texts first.

  • Most well known in the Epistles, among all sections on marriage, Ephesians 5 begins its section on marriage and family life with the statement “Wives be obedient to your husbands as to the Lord.”
  • In 1 Tim. 2:12-15 St Paul says of the ecclesial gatherings on the Lord’s Day “[In the places of prayer] I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She is to keep silent.”
  • And, in 1 Peter 3:1-7 the Prince of the Apostles appears chauvinist, saying what seems condescending, “husbands treat your wives gently as the weaker sex.”

This is a sampling. The reader of modern “Enlightenment” sensibilities might expect more balanced statements of equality, if the essence of the Apostolic message was not inherently sexist. The Gospels on the other hand have a collage of uniquely strange, alternate images when we look for Christ’s own attitude, teaching, and practice towards women. In the overall narrative, the Rabbi from Nazareth refuses to break the mold of an all male cohort of close pupils (“the 12”). But then there is allowance of at least some permanent female followers taking the name “disciples” with the gaggle of disciples assumed to be mostly men (some “women who accompanied and provided for” Jesus are mentioned in Luke 8:1-3).  There is also great sympathy for the destiny of women who have no advocates capable of ensuring, for these women, good results in their life, or at least ensuring a balance of justice and mercy:

  • Jesus brings back to life the son of “the widow at Nain,” who finds herself in a terrible plight (Luke 7:11-17).
  • In the same episode as healing “the woman of faith” with the flow of blood, Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus: (Mark 5:21-43).
  • Jesus grants a miracle to the humble yet persistent Syrophoenician woman, in a manner that suggests her feminine pleadings overcame Jesus’s strange “xenophobic” attitude (Matt. 15:21-38).
  • Most of John chapter 4 is dedicated to Jesus with the Samaritan woman who, for whatever set of reasons, never found a man who would stick by her, who proceeded to keep acting according to her “worthlessness.” (John 4:1-42).
  • Jesus saves and forgives the adulteress, whose life was threatened (probably by her own hypocritical “johns” in the event she was a prostitute). Her condemnation was levied with no thought of morality, but merely to bait Jesus into statements incriminating of treason (John 8:1-11).
  • Jesus converses freely with the saintly sisters, who would again commune with Jesus in their grief at losing a brother and dear friend (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44).
  • Jesus consoled the women of Jerusalem, who wept for Him along the Via Dolorosa (Luke 23:28).

Finally, with these examples we note that the Gospel writers understood the necessity to accept Jesus’ choice of women disciples to be the internal secretaries arranging his first resurrection appointments. Their testimony of the resurrection was inscribed in the permanent record. (See Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20).

The Acts of the Apostles, despite some great honorable mentions here and there for a few women, seems dominated by that all-male hierarchy, making all the important decisions in the Church. But we should immediately temper this perspective by clarifying that, if the very text of Acts is accepted as a real Scriptural revelation, the book makes clear rather explicitly that the Divine Holy Spirit is the one “calling all the shots.”

But let us take one last example, chronologically subsequent to the conclusion of the Acts.

  • In Titus 2:5 St. Paul says “train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, that the word of God may not be discredited.”

I have sometimes thought that this passage might be taken as a final indictment to “expose” the real motive for all writings of the scripture pertaining to women. Not only must they be controlled, they must be groomed to be good mascots for the Christian cause. The early church spread in the midst of a host of sexist cultures. And upon the final examination, the critic would say that we see the New Testament writers consistently, and sometimes explicitly, insisting on the same kind of sexism within the Christian community, merely for the sake of its proselytizing appeal to the pagans (“that the word of God may not be discredited”). The dignity of women, which might have been so powerfully upheld based on the example of Jesus, was ultimately sold out, for the sake of gaining converts. What are we to say about this accusation?

I say that the least bit of knowledge about the world into which the Apostles went will show a quite different perspective on this so-called “proselytizing sexism.” It is the primacy of the Gospels, which has always dominated the post-Apostolic compilation and interpretation of the Scriptures, which answers this accusation. If anything, the heretics who wrote the Gnostic Gospels are subject to this criticism of sexism. Looking at the very text of the Apostolic Gospels, and at their canonization by the male hierarchy in the early Church, the attempt to enshrine this “sexism” into codified stories about Jesus would have been a rather incompetent one. It is either an incompetent attempt, as the texts stand, or it is the most brilliant conspiracy ever. Yes. The Gospels are full of riddles for sure. But to claim that The Gospels are a code for a secret sexist society is merely to identify all of Christianity with that kind of Gnosticism which the Church definitively rejected. That identification does not stand up to historical scrutiny. The same honest scrutiny of the history of the Gospels will allow us to interpret the Epistles in a new light as well.

We must reset the basis of our discussion then, and venture to make some positive comprehension of the matter. Are there any incontrovertible truths with which we can start? We will start with the biblical data for the material description of humanity, that men and women are built up “from the clay of the earth” and of the flesh “formed out of the bone/rib of Adam” when God “breathed life into his nostrils” (Gen. 2:7,21-22).  Regarding the material nature of men and women as living animals, we will skip the biology of reproduction, under the assumption that our terminology about gender above is sufficiently understood in God’s plan for the procreation of children. So we move on to this fact first of all. Healthy males grow up to be stronger than women, in their blunt physical capabilities; it is all hormones, bone structure, muscle development, and physical proportions we here refer to, not much more. While this does not necessarily equate to any fine detail of God’s plan for salvation, neither can the Christian consider it a meaningless accident of “natural selection.” Note well, to believe in the “purposefulness” of creation means that God allowed a world where the evil of physical intimidation and coercive force over women could be perpetuated by men much more easily and more pervasively than the reverse scenario. That God allows this state of things in creation means that there must be some moral and upright way of dealing with it. We must try to find the best way of dealing with it.

Here we may insert a contrasting consideration which we have already touched upon. What about those New Testament passages which seem to endorse that repugnant idea that women are inherently inferior to men in an intellectual, moral, and spiritual sense? Are women presented as irrational and inferior in intellect? Are women presented as worse perpetuators of sinful behavior by word and example? I must give a succinct answer this way. The Old Testament highlights the sinful plight of men. We might look in the Old Testament and focus on the examples of the fallen moral choices and characteristics of women, but those are merely equal counterpart sins to all the sins of men. In the Gospels, Jesus seems to be silent on the women of old, neither mentioning the bad, nor referencing those great women and heroines of the Jews (e.g. Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Hannah, Esther, Judith).  However, in the Lord’s new teaching, he overwhelmingly mentioned women in a positive light.

  • With the strongest of moral voices Jesus insisted on honoring both one’s father and mother (Mk. 7:9-13).
  • To the examples of God’s mercy depicted in the shepherd and the father of “the Prodigal,” Jesus likens himself to a woman who searches diligently for the invaluable lost coin (Lk. 15:8).
  • Jesus upholds spiritual sisterhood and motherhood, in the highest regard, in the new spiritual family that he is creating: “whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt. 12:50).
  • Jesus’s momentary contrast of the dispositions of Mary and Martha is made as a most loving correction given as to a real friend (Lk. 10:41).
  • Jesus likens his deepest desire for his people to the instincts of a mother hen (Lk. 13:34).
  • To inspire hope and affirm blessings, Jesus likens his agony, and future agonies of the Church, to a mother in labor (Jn. 16:21).
  • Last of all, towards his Mother he was so strangely formal (as opposed to “tender”) that we must only proceed with the assumption that honor and respect were the prevailing attitudes he showed towards her, here in this “valley of tears.”[ii]

Let us take these as sufficient indication for the believer of the Gospels that women are not morally inferior to men, nor prone to greater corruption. Further, given the moral “genius” of Christ shown more often in his brevity of words than in his long discourses or expositions, let us not equate the comparative “silence” of the women in the New Testament with any lack of insight or intelligence. On such a question we could indeed look to the Wisdom literature, and especially to Proverbs 31, to get the sense in which depths of wisdom were put into practice, and passed on, by feminine words and examples.

We are still left with a question. What kind of distinctions can be allowed, or even required, ecclesially and then socially between men and women? Where in Scripture or Tradition might God be “insisting” on such distinctions like who has such-and-such right or responsibility, like “the breadwinner,” the “homemaker,” the “prophet and teacher,” and so on? A pragmatic utilitarianism could be employed based on the disparities in physical strength, or on domestic skills, or “intuitiveness,” etc. But are these considerations on the same level as the Biblical revelation? How can we know what is essential for salvation, for justice, for love?  

My best answer to this, attempting to get at the deepest reality, is first to equate that pragmatic utilitarianism with stereotypes; they can in fact be good, but they are not always accurate. Then we should readily set aside the stereotypes, and supplant them with icons, which are encapsulations of the truths and mysteries of the Gospel. Stereotyping makes generalizations, claiming to be universally true; they can sometimes give comforting social cues and lead to functional patterns of live. The patterns of masculine and feminine stereotypes may even be more than functional, they may be quite edifying as part of a pedagogy of culture and morality. But to cling to stereotypes of the sexes, so to make one’s theology and anthropology out of them, runs afoul too often of the real competencies and even moral duties which show the stereotype not to be true in an unchanging and perennial way.

So there are two stereotypes here and now, which I present as “mostly” accurate in pointing to deeper truths, but which at the same time must give way to greater truths, only captured satisfactorily for me in an icon. First we take up the fact that men are physically stronger than women. As we already said, this cannot equate to a moral right to physical force against women. What are we to take it as? We must make of this an icon, the icon of Christ the New Adam, the Gardener of the New Eden.

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene.
Courtesy , in the public domain.

Such an icon expresses a real truth, more profound than the utilitarian question of “who will be the most productive breadwinner.” Insofar as the physical tilling of the earth can be done by technology and technical manipulation of matter and energy (from “the simple machines” to the largest, satellite controlled, diesel powered combines) men and women are equal in their intellectual abilities to subdue the earth through technology. But if all material objects – objects which are never “evil” things, but created things, and part of a good material creation – are meant to support humanity, and if material must be moved by force so that it may be used for good ends, then the appropriate icon to match the physical disparity between the sexes is that of a gardener who is a man: the man Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.[iii]

What is the corresponding icon of femininity relating to women’s comparative physical “weakness”? There is no such icon. For the corresponding icon of femininity does not show weakness as the opposite of physical strength, but it shows spiritual life, spiritual existence, as the fulfillment of man’s physical nature. That icon is the Pieta, the mourning of the mother over the bodily death of her own son, her own “flesh and blood.” Why should death be mourned if the body, the thing of physical-capability and strength, is opposed to the spirit? If the body and the spirit are opposed, then death is not to be mourned, for it is then the “liberation” of the spirit. But if death is to be mourned, then the body is good; good, but not good without the fulfillment of the spirit. Because it is a woman’s own body that nourishes the body of each new human being, women represent in an iconographic way that otherworldly “integration” of the body, which God desires to bring to a great spiritual fulfillment for the human family.

The icon of the Blessed Mother nursing the newborn Christ would be a much more hope-filled and tender alternative to the Pieta in this sense. And this might be the deepest correspondent to the stereotype of woman as a “nurturer,” acting affectionately to those who are weak (or who are ill). The stereotype can be helpful, but the icon expresses the deepest unchanging truth, especially when confronting the mortality of the body.

In consideration of this iconographic approach, what kind of distinctions ought to exist, ecclesially and then socially between men and women? Ecclesially the answer is indeed in the iconography. Holy Orders is in fact the perpetuation of the icon of Christ in his ministers. We must realize the shortsightedness of thinking of “the priest” as a functionary, of merely doing rituals and speaking from a platform. The priest, and for this matter all deacons and especially bishops, are to BE CHRIST JESUS, in the manner of an icon, which makes present the Person it is depicting. Holy Orders means a man has been made an icon “who” makes present Christ, by his diaconal, priestly, bodily life, within in the Body of the Church. All things that a bishop, priest, or deacon might do should flow from that reality.

This bedrock revelation of what the Sacrament of Holy Orders ought to be in the “economy of salvation” is partially a factor in the perceived “sexism” of the New Testament Epistles. There is both a mixture of sacramental doctrine and of Church practice at work in the exclusion of all opportunities for women to “teach” or even “speak” in the places of prayer. Church practice could indeed change, but only insofar as it would not contradict the sacramental realties at work. The context of “places of prayer” is clear, and the “church order” shown there has no universally necessary extension to public settings. One place that there may be a necessary sacramental parallel is in the family home, but this is a sacramental case that stands alone, and it does not negate the fact that church practice can change, while the defined sphere of sacramental doctrine remains immovable. Allowing women to speak, outside the Mass, in 20th-21st century church pulpits, as catechists and leaders of parish apostolates, is not a reversal of sacramental practice, whereas the preaching of the homily, and the ministry at the altar of sacrifice, are acts intrinsically demanding holy orders for their meaning.

We hit, in those sacraments, the unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation. We know very well that each grace of each sacrament, and all Sanctifying Grace, could have been bestowed by God in any manner He chose. He chose to do it through icons conformed to His Son in holy orders, passed on by Apostolic Succession, in a worldwide hierarchy. That hierarchy, in essence, manifests the icon of Christ on a universal global scale; the essence is there, even when the sins of clergy, the sins even of bishops and popes, are clouding over that icon. If the New Testament is accepted as divine revelation, known to be such by the Catholic Tradition which compiled it, then the answer to that sacramental question is clearly given.

Here then, with the consideration of Christ, we draw general conclusions about all men and women, about the laity, and the religious, distinct from the men who are ordained in holy orders. In some way, each man ought to be an icon of Christ, just as a woman ought to be an icon of Mary and the Church. But the place of “location” and “mediation” for the icon, and thus the effects or the actions that flow from this identification with Christ, or identification with the Church, vary and concentrate much more widely than the manner we described for holy orders.

For husbands, who are all potential fathers to children, or actual fathers, the place and mediation of the icon is in family life. Between spouses in a conjugal-pro creative marriage, ONLY the husband can pass on the Catholic faith by becoming a visible icon of Christ through his sanctification according to the holiness of Christ! It is impossible for his wife to do this; it is not only possible for fathers, it is necessary. There is a God given power to perpetuate the graces of Christian faith, through the living of a holy life by a Catholic husband and father.

The celibate man who is not in holy orders does not have this power, and is not asked to do this until there is the bond of fatherhood or adoption. His life of holiness by the graces of baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist, is indeed a great channel of grace for the whole church. But it is not happening visibly most often. If it is happening visibly, there is no permanent bond to facilitate and obligate him to this: like parenting or adopting. In contrast, the iconography of fatherhood is visible and in some sense permanent. It is “in flesh and blood,” and somebody’s always watching! This is why it makes so much sense to say that a father has a power of spiritual leadership in his family. He does have a power to bless his family, to bless his wife, to bless his children. Even if he never intentionally invokes those blessings, he gives them if he is being a worthy icon of Christ. But he ought to invoke them intentionally and verbally too.

A wife, in her own way as an icon, blesses her husband as well. Men should take note that their own souls, so loved and destined for salvation by the holy intentions of their wives, are all described by the great spiritual writers as feminine in representation. Let me say that again, the feminine “she” has been adopted in tradition for describing every human soul, be it the soul of a man or of a woman. A husband is blessed by his wife when he sees in her sanctified life the visible reminder of his own soul’s fulfillment; it is the fulfillment also of his physical body.

We should see then, in motherhood, a mediation of graces different than those in the fatherhood of her husband. As an icon of the Church, the mother of the family (from birth or from adoption) gives the picture of the grace of completion, the potential for eternal relationships and eternal fulfillment that God put into the human soul. The beauty of a bride at her wedding (a beauty I would describe from some weddings as radiating spiritually and not merely to be perceived aesthetically) is this icon in but a faint beginning. The growth of beautiful relationships over many years of sanctification among all members of a family (children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.) gives a display of a beauty even greater than that, in a way essentially feminine, reflective of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

The mutual blessing of husbands and wives is of course a blessing to their children. And by the complimentary of husband and wife they each grow in their iconographic roles: revealing that the life of the body, as connected to this material world, is indeed good, and being constantly taken up and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit’s purposes. The holiness of soul in each member of the family is the spiritual fulfillment represented by the wife, brought about by grace.

To give final a word about women religious, we see two things. Firstly their sanctification gives them an intercessory power in prayer which is irrespective of the “display” of the feminine icons that they become in their vocations. But in terms of the being a visible icon, they show to the whole world the potential for eternal relationships and eternal fulfillment, as a bride of Christ. A mother is that icon to her family. A consecrated woman is an icon to the whole Church, even when she is never visible to the public. Indeed, for the cloistered woman her very “death” to the public’s perception might be its own kind of iconographic “Pieta.”

To add one last icon, also similar to that which we see in religious, in the visible goal of holiness and the graces of life’s “completion” we may very well present the icon of the Lady Wisdom of the Scriptures. She is the personification of that holiness of God’s creatures, man or woman, spirit-mind-and-body; She personifies the greatest likeness of Christ in all of the created world. And never was there a man or woman more perfectly in the mold of Lady Wisdom than the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In terms of what a created human person ought to be, in fulfillment of both body and soul, the greatest expression is shown by a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Joseph and other men may show lesser expressions, like any of the other holy women of the Church. The angels hail the greatness of this revelation in Mary. No angel could be such a revelation to man, even by the greatest of apparitions. Mary is, for she is “Woman, and Type of the Church.” And her Son, her own flesh and blood, is worshiped and adored by men and angels.

[i] As an aside here: if absolutely all human activities outside of biological reproduction are essentially interchangeable in society then societal manifestations of gender are more-or-less meaningless, except in so far as a culture may or may not want to use gender terminology to indicate biological reproductive capacity. That society may very well speak of chromosomes, or eugenics, or brand name IVF consumer products, as all equal replacements for gendered language. We know well that no small number of people today feel that gender terminology ought not to be used to indicate a person’s private “biology,” or capacities of biological reproduction. The same terminology which used to refer to this is instead proposed to be kept as a norm for societal designations of groups, defined very much by volition, and not by any biology or “logic” or “system.”

[ii] When he calls her “Woman” (John 2:4) it is not at all an address of disrespect, although the words that follow seem quite the mystery. (“What is between you and me?” seems Jesus might have given his own mother more grief than any other women, yet clearly done by way of promising her a share in his cross).

[iii] I do mean the double entendre here: “material things must be moved by force” is both part of laws of Newtonian physics and also a moral imperative for accomplishing the spiritual mission of populating the earth and the heavens with sanctified souls.

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