Some years ago a distinguished academic published a work in which he put forth a thesis that Christianity during the first millennium was, like its Jewish ancestor, a highly masculine religion. Christianity was distinguished, he contended, by certain masculine traits, which arose from its traditional worldview and traditional theology, and from physiological, psychological, and sociological realities that are as old as mankind itself.
The lives of Christian believers of both genders were delineated in terms of a masculine imagery that rested especially upon the traditions of the Holy Martyrs and Ascetics. Christians, both male and female, thought of themselves and described themselves as "athletes" and as "soldiers" or "warriors." Christian life was seen as ongoing warfare against the powers of darkness, a struggle in which one must don spiritual armor and fight with spiritual weapons. Monastics, specifically, and the great monastic Saints, were thought of as fighters who battled heroically against the demons.
The author went on to say that modern Judaism—but only in its traditional forms—preserves its essentially masculine character. And though he is not an Orthodox Christian, the author contended that Eastern Orthodox Christianity also preserves the masculine attributes prevalent during the first millennium. That is not surprising, of course, because Orthodoxy continues to uphold the Biblical-Patristic theology and lifestyle of early Christianity. Orthodoxy is one with early Christianity. Orthodoxy is early Christianity.
In contrast, Western Christianity, losing its understanding of Biblical-Patristic Christianity and imagining it to be unsophisticated, dabbled in highly innovative theologies that gradually sapped that religion of its masculine characteristics. Thus, Western Christianity has become largely a religion of women in the sense that formal attendees at religious services are overwhelmingly female, instead of, as during the first millennium, roughly equally balanced between men and women.
This fact, needless to say, has had a tremendous effect upon the nature of the Eastern and Western forms of Christianity. Contrast the "sweet," almost feminine, pictures of Christ prevailing in Western religious art with the austere image of our Christ Pantokrator. Contrast the sugary hymnography of the West with the sternly Biblical-theological music of the Christian East. And consider the ease with which various fads and fashions dramatically influence the course of events in Western religious groups, while Eastern Orthodox Christianity holds firmly to its tradition.
In our age of "political correctness" and hyper-sensitivity in matters touching upon gender and the like, let us take pains to elucidate what we mean when we use terminology like "masculine" and "feminine" when describing religions. This has nothing whatever to do with the value of men or women in the eyes of God. Both are of precisely equal value. Rather, what we refer to here are psychological characteristics.
Would one wish to have personnel in charge of a nursery full of newborn babies with largely masculine or feminine attributes? Obviously, the tenderness and the nurturing qualities that we associate with the feminine side of human nature are preferable, even indispensable, here. If, however, a nation fields an army, arrayed in its helmets, armor, weapons, and flags, would one wish masculine or feminine qualities to predominate in such an army? The answer is crystal clear. The traits we associate with the masculine side of human nature are requisite to winning a military battle.
Those truths do not denigrate either men or women, but simply point to certain innate characteristics established by God when He created the two sexes. The Church, in its public aspect, is more like an army arrayed in its battle gear than it is like a nursery of children. Though the latter comparison is not wholly inadmissible when speaking of the Church, this aspect involves more the private than the public.
St. Paul was, without question, a decidedly tough man, thoroughly masculine in his bearing and attitudes, characteristics he doubtless inherited at birth and characteristics which were accentuated by his rigorous training in Judaism in his youth. His admonitions to the local Churches he founded read like the commands of a great general to his soldiers. In today's reading he gives this order to the Christians of Corinth to: "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong." Consider each command.
"Watch Ye:" In modern English we would say, "be vigilant." Soldiers and armies that fail to be watchful at every moment, day and night, are doomed to defeat. Many times in history, larger armies with better equipment have suffered defeat because overconfidence engendered carelessness and a lack of vigilance. So, too, with ourselves, if we fail to appreciate that our mortal enemy, led by the Evil One, is perpetually probing our defenses, looking for the smallest signs of weakness, in order to attack and overwhelm us. The Christian man or woman, if he or she is earnest, is ever vigilant over every detail of life, being certain that every thought and act is harmonious with Christian teaching. The Christian man or woman is particularly aware of weaknesses peculiar to his or her own person, so that in such things he or she may be especially watchful.
"Stand fast in the faith:" In other words, one might also say "in your faith and all that it teaches be absolutely firm, absolutely unyielding." In our own time, where flabbiness, looseness, and compromise are, sad to relate, looked upon as virtues, we are under constant pressure not to stand fast, not to be firm, with regard to many things. We are told, for example, that one religion is just as good as another, a falsehood that, if we consider it, would make a liar out of Christ Jesus, Who said forthrightly: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me." Likewise, in matters of moral uprightness, we are tempted to believe, nowadays, that transgressions from time to time, or on certain occasions, do not really matter, so long we act like Christians on Sunday. Nothing could be further from the truth and nothing could be further from St. Paul's demand that we must "stand fast in the faith." An army, however lavishly it may be equipped, will fail in its mission if it does not truly believe in its mission, if it is not truly determined to "stand fast," come what may.
"Quit you like men:" In the English of King James' time, "quit you like men" meant "conduct yourselves like men" or, better yet, "behave courageously."
During a particular battle in Africa during the Second World War, history records that a certain unit of more than four thousand men promptly surrendered after it suffered only six casualties and before it had expended any of its own ammunition. What a piteous example of a dearth of courage! And what shame that unit brought to its own nation! Those men, and their commanders, failed to grasp that to be a soldier in wartime is not simply a matter of grand music, colorful banners, and smart uniforms. War is a grim duty, a serious struggle of life or death, requiring genuine courage. It is no different for us. To be a real Christian, in this day and age especially, is not simply a matter of grand words or of beautiful crosses to adorn our necks. It is also a grim duty, and a serious struggle involving spiritual life or death, a struggle requiring genuine courage.
If the word "Christian" has any meaning at all consonant with Christ's life and teaching, it takes more courage, at least in one respect, to be a Christian today than it did to be a soldier in the deserts of North Africa during the last great war. The soldier in North Africa knew that the danger and hardships were of comparatively short duration, lasting a few months or, at most, a few years. Our danger and hardships as Christians last our whole lives, from the time we are able to understand the difference between right and wrong until the moment we draw our final breath. In the Army of Christ, we enlist for life.
"Be strong:" Armies do not recruit the infirm, the disabled, or the elderly. Armies must be composed of healthy, vigorous, and relatively young men, for only such men possess sufficient stamina to endure the hardship likely to be required of them. Even in peacetime, soldiers undergo continuous physical training to keep them fit for the battles of tomorrow. Similarly, to be a Christian requires stamina, not physical stamina but spiritual stamina, to endure the hardships of Christian life. Unlike the soldier, the Christian experiences no intervals of peace and war. All of life is a war between good and evil, between light and darkness, and so the spiritual exercises that keep us spiritually strong must never cease. And if we should assert that we need not be strong since we encounter no hardships and make no sacrifices for the sake of Christ, then it must be questioned whether our lives are truly Christian in the full sense of that word.
St. John of San Francisco was not a man of great physical strength, but if we speak of the spiritual, he was healthy, vigorous, and young throughout his earthly days, enduring even the pain of ridicule and unjust criticism from members of his own flock. No one would compare the strength of a young soldier to the physical strength of St. Xenia of Petersburg, but of her spiritual strength there can be no doubt or question, living as she did in rags, a Fool for Christ.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, St. Paul's admonitions "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong" reverberate down two thousand years of Church history, like the sharp, exacting commands of a general. They are no less compelling, no less urgent, after twenty centuries, and they obligate us no less than they did the Corinthian Christians. May we, like soldiers in a grand army on a battlefield, resolve never to give the least ground, never to despair, never to surrender, but instead to conquer and to triumph.