Being “male and female”
God’s project is to make human beings. This is what God does and this is who God is: the phil-anthrōpos, the lover of the human being.
Yet, as we have seen, for a human being to come into existence requires a being
who can say “fiat,” “Let it be!”
If achieving the desired intention of creating human beings in the image of God requires this lengthy preparation and a responsive, sacrificial act from the creature being fashioned, then perhaps further depths can also be seen in our existence as male and female.
God’s intended but lengthy project is to create human beings. But what he actually does, more immediately, is to create men and women, for they are the only beings who can learn how to say “fiat,” “Let it be!”
Being “male and female” is usually considered to be something we share with other creatures,
for we unthinkingly consider it to be part of the biological, physical traits of existence that we have in common with animals.
But in the opening creation poem of Genesis, no other creature is said to be “male and female.” This aspect of our existence certainly enables the species to “increase and multiply”1 (Gen 1:28). Yet the other creatures are also given this same command2 (Gen 1:22), without being called “male and female.”
Being “male and female”, then, is something unique to the creature called to be human.
St Maximus differentiates the birth (gennēsis) resulting from biological, sexual procreation between a man and a woman, from the coming-into-being (genesis) of the true human being.
The “human being,” in the full sense that we have seen that term used, is not the result of procreation,
just as such reproduction does not result in beings who are already “in Christ” rather than “in Adam.”
It is very important, however, to make it absolutely clear that this is not because of any supposed “taint” inherent in sexual activity, no matter how “purely” engaged in.
Marriage and Martyrdom
“The children of this world marry and are given in marriage”3 (Luke 20:34), resulting in more sons and daughters of Adam. This has its own God-given role to play; but it is not the completion of God’s purpose.
For those men and women to become human requires their own voluntary action to conform themselves to Christ through baptism and to take up the cross.
Beyond being the “fruit of the loins”—the aspect of marriage which belongs to this world—marriage also provides a context for spiritual fruit and a path to the heavenly realm. As we have seen, martyrdom was understood by the first Christians as a birth, in Christ, into true existence as a human being.
In later years, the ascetic life of monastics and celibates was also understood as “martyrdom”: the martyr’s struggle in the arena with the beasts, represented in the martyrologies as demons, was now continued by the monk in the desert struggling with the demons, depicted visually as beasts.
St Anthony the Great endured daily martyrdom, according to St Athanasius, by fighting with the passions and the temptations which daily assailed him. Likewise, in the sacrament of marriage —the crowning of the bride and the groom in the sacrament of marriage with the martyrs’ crowns – indicates that here also is an arena in which the couple learn to become human through their faithful and ascetic witness -martyria – to Christ.
When Christ quotes the words in Genesis that from the beginning God made them male and female so that the two might become one flesh4 (Mat 19), he makes no mention whatsoever of procreation: it is simply that the two might become one, and that there is to be no dissolution of this. Even if Moses allowed divorce because of the Israelite hardness of heart, Christ, who is before Moses, revokes this: from the beginning it was not so.
So absolute are Christ’s words about this that they provoke his disciples to exclaim, in shock, that it is better not to get married, thus demonstrating their hardness of heart!
This is indeed a “difficult” saying of Christ, and not all can accept it (as the disciples have just shown!).
In fact, playing with the imagery, Christ says that to accept this difficult saying, one must be as devoted as a “eunuch” was thought to be in antiquity: that is, one must be faithful to the injunction of God—monogamous— to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven.”
Likewise, when writing to the questioning Corinthians5 (1 Cor 7), Paul asserts that because we are created as sexual beings and thus tempted to immorality, every man should have a wife and every woman a husband, and that they should give themselves to each other, for they are each other’s body.
He states this in an amazingly reciprocal manner, putting each on a par with each other—and, again, with no mention of procreation.
He then continues by suggesting that for the sake of praying, married couples might, perhaps, by mutual consent and then only for a temporary season, abstain from sexual relations to devote themselves to prayer in a more concentrated fashion. Yet in the same breath he adds, “And then come back together again.”
The Apostle gives concession to married Christians, just as Moses had also earlier given a concession.
However, as Christ made clear, it was not so from the beginning.
From the beginning, then, we have needed concessions as we learn to grow into the reality to which we are called. Marriage provides a context in which males and females are, quite literally, humanized.
According to St Maximus, the attributes of being “male” and “female” are “seen especially in men and women.” That is, for St Maximus, being “male” and being “female” is not simply equivalent to being a “man” and a “woman,” but is, rather, the impassioned modes in which we currently experience our sexuality – the divisive roles laid upon us by society, or a means of identifying otherness, and thus destructive of our being truly human.
However, he says, through the attainment of dispassionate virtue, such things are laid aside or transcended, so that men and women, remaining men and women, are now equally seen to be and become “human beings” – as is Christ, in whom there is “neither male nor female”6 (Gal 3:28).
Sexual difference, thus inscribed into human existence, is not simply there to perpetuate the species.
Rather, sexual difference provides a concrete, incarnate, and immediate experience of otherness, evoking the possibility of real self-sacrifice in ecstatic and erotic love.
To reduce the otherness of sexual difference to a biological (and, as sometimes claimed, “fallen”) means of reproduction does not do justice to the richness of human experience, provided by God as the framework for our growth into the stature of Christ.
(Fr. J. Behr, Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen)