[Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion, July 2005]
A couple of years ago I was sitting on the dais at a banquet, just about to give a speech. About a thousand pro-life Christians filled the tables around the room, putting away the last of their cheesecake. Then the hostess of the evening stood up at the podium, immediately to my right. “As you know, it’s our tradition to give a gift to each of the evening’s speakers,” she said. “And, as you know, the gift is always a relic.” I must have done a noticeable double-take, because she looked down at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, that’s right.” (I must say that this was not an Orthodox gathering.)
She then presented a small box to the highest-ranking clergyman at the dais; a relic of St. Andrew, she said. My head was spinning. Another clergyman received another saint’s relic. Then she gave me a small box. I opened it to see a small gold reliquary with a glass lid, and what appeared to be a bone fragment inside. The label said, in Latin, “The Holy Innocents.”
Across the span of two thousand years, I the unworthy, complacent and still savoring cheesecake, was holding the bone of a baby boy who had screamed and suffered when he was ripped from his mother’s arms. He was one of the first martyrs, who died for Christ, who died in place of Christ, a lifetime before St. Stephen did.
That first-fruits offering was gender-specific; the soldiers had orders to kill all the boys. The ministry we were honoring at the banquet that night was likewise gender-specific; it aimed to support women who were pregnant. The people who served in this ministry were likewise mostly women themselves; the needs of pregnant women are ones that other women are best equipped to understand and serve.
In most of our life in Christ it doesn’t matter at all whether we’re male or female. St. Paul said as much: “there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). We are all sinners and we are all saved by an overwhelming gift of God that does not have to shift its course to accomodate X or Y chromosomes. Yet on the far other end we could say that God shifts course with every single individual, to address us as we uniquely need, at depths we ourselves can’t understand. Our gender is part of that, a factor in all that makes each of us a mysterious composition never before seen in all of history.
In the middle, though, there’s the reality that gender is the primary way that humans mark and identify themselves. It’s the first thing we want to know about a newborn, and we delight in seeing growing boys and girls instinctively follow the paths that genes and intra-uterine environment, culture and parenting, all conspire to send them in. Last summer my husband found two of our toddler grand-children, David and his cousin Hannah, playing on the floor. He asked them, “What are you two doing?” Hannah said, “We’re playing wedding,” and David said, “We’re playing riding in a truck.”
(A friend who’s a marriage counselor says, Yep, that’s pretty much the story she encounters every week.)
Gender differences delight us because they literally mean new life. The fact that men and women are different, and that each finds the other’s difference fascinating, is where new babies come from. You can try to make humans stop thinking about those differences, but you won’t succeed. The differences are fun, they are the source of a million jokes and jibes, and the source of billions of babies.
We encounter gender differences sometimes in our healing ministries as well. Most of the ills that afflict humans don’t relate to their sex; a ministry that offers food or job training won’t be significantly affected by the gender of its clients. But there are some areas where being a woman or being a man is an essential component of the situation, and ministry by someone of the same gender is best. Women caring for pregnant women is a prime example. Men attempting to leave active homosexuality and become chaste, on the other hand, are best supported by the friendship of other men.
There’s a temptation, however, to go farther than this and establish a wall between the genders that obscures our essential unity in Christ. Some women leaders convey the message that Christian women have a different sort of prayer life than men do, or that their spiritual needs are different. Some imply that women’s spirituality through the ages has been oppressed, and has operated in rebellion against powerful men. And some men, observing the feminization of much of Western Christianity and how uneasy it makes men feel, propose instead a hearty, masculine version to make men feel at home again.
Gender differences tend to “reify,” that is, the more you focus on them, the more they harden into concrete. It’s one thing to let these differences delightfully emerge, and another to insist on them in a belligerent or oppositional way. In these days of niche-marketing, in particular, it’s a temptation to turn a subtle contrast between the sexes into a self-perpetuating institution. It’s better to hold these distinctives loosely and let nature be our guide. When we construct walls of division that God does not intend we can get confused about where the truth is. These walls are very hard to take down again.
So many little boys died, just days after the very first Christmas. So many women have served as midwives and supporters for women in pregnancy, labor, and nursing. So many men have put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of women and children. Men and women alike have cared for the poor, proclaimed the Gospel, produced icons and hymns, and healed in Christ’s name. We are called together in one Body to do His work, to do our distinctive parts in a unity that ultimately transcends all earthly division.