Male and Female at the Cross – Part Three

our-lady-of-sorrowsIn my last article, I reflected on the hiddenness of our identity, including the meaning of being male or female. Our true life is hid with Christ in God. There is more to be said on this hiddenness and its relationship to the image according to which we were created.

In the Genesis account, when God created man and woman, He created them “in His image.” Most people fail to ask what that image is. We are told in the New Testament that Christ Himself is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). We are created in the image of Christ, the pre-eternal Word of God.

We can go further (and should). We are told very little about the pre-eternal Word of the Father, but what we are told holds a key for understanding the truth of our existence. In Rev. 13:8, Christ is described as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (τοῦ ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου). The image according to which we were and are created is the Crucified Christ. Christ on the Cross is not only the offering for our sins, He is also, in that place, revealing the truth of our being. It is in the context of the suffering Christ that Pontius Pilate speaks the truth (though he did not know it) when he said: “Behold the Man.” It is the Crucified Christ who is able to say from the Cross, “It is finished.” What is finished or completed is the fullness of man in the image of God.

The divine irony of Christ Crucified is a major theme in St. Paul’s writings. He says, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2) He also declares, “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1Co 1:23-24)

For St. Paul (and for us), Christ Crucified is the Wisdom and Power of God. In the same manner, it is Christ Crucified who constitutes the image according to which we were created and towards which we are being conformed. This is underlined in the famous passage from Philippians:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He emptied Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him (Phi 2:5-9)

The Elder Sophrony describes this self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross as also descriptive of the relations within the Holy Trinity.

Divine love is selfless; it is a fundamental characteristic of the divine life of the three Hypostases, in which ‘each Hypostasis is totally open to the others’ and thus manifests the oneness of the Holy Trinity in an absolutely perfect manner. This mutual self-emptying love is expressed theologically by the term ‘perichoresis’. (from Christ, Our Way and Our Life, 2013).

And so we must understand that when we speak of male and female, the energies of our incarnate nature, we must understand them as self-emptying male and self-emptying female. There are two primary images given to us for this. The first, as we have noted, is Christ Crucified. But the second is a reflection: the Mother of God in her union with her crucified Son. Again, a quote from the Elder Sophrony:

The All-Holy Virgin said to the Archangel Gabriel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” (Luke 1:38). These words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” are an acceptance of the Cross. The All-Holy Virgin participated all through her life in the Cross of her Son (quoted in I knew A Man in Christ, 2015).

Mary was told by the elder Simeon, when she presented the child Christ in the temple:

“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luk 2:34-35)

The union of Mother and Child is such that His crucifixion is her sword. Mary cannot be rightly understood as anything other than self-emptying, in imitation of the Crucified Christ.

Both images do much to clarify what it means to be male and female. What we see in this world is, in virtually every instance, a distortion of that self-emptying mode of existence. In all discussions of our gendered existence, Christians must remember that male and female are eschatological images – they are images towards which we are moving, not givens according to which automatically live. The male who is not self-emptyingly male, is not yet what he shall be nor what he should be. The female who is not self-emptyingly female, is not yet what she shall be nor what she should be. And, of course, our situation is still more tragic and broken. For some, the experience of the energies of our nature is changed – whether through the brokenness of genetics or nurture. They are not yet what they shall be nor what they should be. We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.

The sacrament of marriage must be seen in this same eschatological manner. Sacraments do not simply bless things as they are, but transform them in a dynamic manner towards what they should be. In the case of the Eucharist, this transformation is complete. But in those sacraments that involve the freedom of persons, the transformation can only be seen as a dynamic. Man and woman are blessed towards what they should be.

The heart of marriage is self-emptying love towards the purpose of union and the procreation of children. It does not exist for the self-fulfillment of our tragic existence – (“legalized sex” or “companionship”) – but towards an end that is only just now being made present. And like every other form of Christian living, the self-emptying state of marriage is marked by ascesis and thanksgiving. The passions are as much a part of the struggle of marriage as they are for the single state.

The proper Christian position before all of this should be humility. The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys. The world shares a common struggle towards the truth of our existence. That truth is revealed to us in the gospel of Christ and the fullness of its story. I have written elsewhere that “kenosis is theosis.” We are only transformed in the image of Christ (theosis) as we live in accordance with the self-emptying Crucified Christ (kenosis). The failure of Christians to proclaim the kenotic character of our lives distorts the gospel, and gives a false sense of normalcy to the status quo of the world. The Cross is the lens of truth.


  1. Thank you for these further insights into the nature of who are and who we are becoming in Christ. By failing to understand that the crucified Christ is the image in which we are made, our understandings of the atonement have often been woefully inadequate, too. As Michael Gorman says,” . . . the death of Jesus is not only the source, but also the shape, of salvation.”

  2. In all discussions of our gendered existence, Christians must remember that male and female are eschatological images – they are images towards which we are moving, not givens according to which automatically live. The male who is not self-emptyingly male, is not yet what he shall be nor what he should be. The female who is not self-emptyingly female, is not yet what she shall be nor what she should be. And, of course, our situation is still more tragic and broken. For some, the experience of the energies of our nature is changed – whether through the brokenness of genetics or nurture. They are not yet what they shall be nor what they should be. We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.

    Fr. Stephen, I think you’ve finally answered my question from the first article. 🙂

  3. I agree with Matt. That particular comment struck me quite forcefully. This is a wonderful writing! Blessings to you, Father. Many thanks!

  4. Father, this fits in so well with Fr John Behr’s views as he writes in “Becoming Human.”

    I’ve been listening to him (and Fr Zacharias) quite a bit lately on YouTube. I understand his writing fairly well after reading through it a couple of times, but being an aural learner, the videos really help things get to my heart as well as my brain.

    Viz. seeing Mary, and what is male/masculine being the quality that is valued in our culture (and in many expressions of Protestantism as well), per your reply to Matt in part 2, Fr Tom Hopko mentioned a set of books by Karl Stern, which he recommended highly in his talk on C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man,” one of which is called “Flight from Woman.” Have you read it? Seems germane.

    Between Yannaras’ explanation of the iconic view of gender in worship, Fr John’s writing on what being human means, and this little series of yours, along with observing and participating in Orthodox life in a reasonably healthy parish, I have experienced so much healing through the Church for this aspect of my humanity. Having spent +30 years in those expressions of Protestantism which, in reading scripture flatly and supporting their particular interpretation with bad theology, turn being female into being something less than human, I can hardly express in words how much peace and rest all this has given me.

    So very grateful to God!


  5. Small I am.
    By myself in darkness hidden
    even from myself-
    that is light to You.
    You who see
    beyond the horizon-
    where sky
    touches sea,
    beyond all our
    struggling fragility.

    It seems a sometimes
    strange & austere
    that shepherds us
    toward the Day,
    casting off
    our outer
    along the way.

  6. Dana,
    Thank you. Fr. John sent me his Becoming Human when it was still in manuscript form – and I loved it. I would describe myself as “immersed” in Fr. Sophrony and Fr. Zacharias over the past year. I met with Fr. Zacharias last summer and spoke for a while – and some direction on my reading. Pieces keep falling in place. It’s been very timely in view of current issues.

    A key, for me, is that these things (or identity/male/female) are hidden. It is in entering the mystery of Christ that these things find their resolve.

  7. Father, if you have time to listen, you may like Fr Seraphim Aldea’s podcast at AFR on Freedom; he sticks really close to 20 min in his podcasts. More chains fell off for me. Got a small preview from you re Fr Zacharias at lunch with you in Asheville last August, while it was still percolating within you 🙂

    Todd, I will listen and get back to you.


  8. Todd, that’s not it.

    See “The Freedom of Morality.” Y. avoids the “natural law” thing entirely, and also does not speak about anything Abp. Cordileone discusses.


  9. Fr. Stephen,

    First, thank you for this entire series of posts, especially this last. Your unfolding of the mystery of marriage offers a great deal to consider.

    I do have a question, or maybe just a concern, and wonder if you care to comment further or elaborate. I would not disagree with anything you have said above, yet I have two distinct reactions to it. The first is admiration and thanksgiving for your articulation of Christian marriage; the second is concern for the potential abuse carried in the language itself.

    The church has a sad history of too often perpetuating abusive relationships (actively or passively), and it is not hard to see a connection between this abuse and the church’s articulations of marriage and the way of the crucified Christ.

    I am hoping you will elaborate. How do you articulate the mystery of marriage and the image of male and female within marriage with language that necessarily points to the crucified Christ and do so in a manner that may prevent people from binding themselves to abusive relationships? Only so much can be done in writing, I recognize that. But given the history of domestic abuse in the church’s life, it seems to me this ought to be given some thought. Ideally such individuals would reach out and speak to their priest/pastor or someone else for help, and receive wise and appropriate counsel, but that is far too often not the case.

    Grace and peace to you! Your writings are a blessing to me.
    Jonathan (that darn Presbyterian) =)

  10. It’s interesting that Parts 2 and 3 of this post have generated a lot fewer comments. I sense everybody’s reading but no one’s commenting. I think I understand this because I feel it too. We’ve gone past the typical political argument level where everyone strives to win by rhetoric, and have begun to delve deeper – down beyond hate and fear and loneliness – to things that are mysterious, that we’ve instinctively suspected but never thought to see it spoken aloud by anyone.

    The usual impetus for joining such a “hot potato” conversation is something like a gleeful “what do I get to be?” Only this time I/we are being met with “You get to be crucified; that’s what you get. So come on, further up and deeper in.”

    It’s not the expected reply and I feel myself shocked to silence – not because I’m affronted but because of the audacious truth of this message. We indeed are largely hidden for now. Male or female? Heck I can barely tell you WHO I am, let alone WHAT! When we one day receive the white stone of Revelation with our name on it, then all will become clear and no one will contest it. The truth shall shine forth freely, instead of the smudged opaqueness we experience in this lifetime.

  11. Drewster,
    If I gave prizes for “getting it,” you’d get a big one! I believe that everything is resolved in the Cross and that there is no other way forward.

    I felt fairly grim, when, last Sunday, I was preaching about the utter necessity of suffering. What a grim preacher I can be! But, “higher up and further in,” is the real truth of it. I cannot or dare not speak much of what lies through the Cross – but Jesus Himself went to the Cross “for the joy set before Him.”

    I’m doing a radio interview this Sunday evening (8 pm Eastern) on Ancient Faith, with Fr. Barnabas Powell and another priest. We’ll be looking at the topic of the recent Supreme Court Case and how we speak about it. I will mostly be speaking about the Cross.

    Everything is resolved in the Cross.

  12. Thank you for these posts concerning male and female, Fr. Stephen, they are a balm to my heart. I am so happy to hear you will be discussing current topics on Ancient Faith Radio! Thank you!

  13. While I have long appreciated the presence of the Cross as the ruling dynamic of the male-female synergy, especially in marriage, these posts have made me look even more deeply into what that means: not just in some vague conceptual way but in the exestentialy facts of my life.

    Combined with the experience of Christ everywhere present, filling all things there is something enormously comforting about it even as I know that significant challenges exist now and likely to come.

    There is a peace just resting in what is real without needing to figure it all out.

    Still I expect and hope more specific consciousness will come as needed. God provides.

  14. It is one thing to talk about suffering and quite another to accept it when it comes and endure “for the joy”. Can anyone with open eyes and an open heart not suffer to some degree just by being “in the world, but not of it?” Even aging reminds us that we are just “passing through”, that, like Abraham, we are “seeking a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God”. The foolish things we bring on ourselves are used by a faithful Father whose discipline (I mean this in the broadest sense, i.e. not just punishment, but training) is intended to allow us to “share His holiness” (and perhaps this means His image too).

    These are the times we need to encourage one another to “light up”, to “lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles us”. It is certainly grieving to see our neighbors and our world sinking as it is into delusion in the name of progress, but what is even worse is that those us around us in the sacred space we call church suffer in silence, in this western idea of personal “space”. Priests are wonderful and prayer is essential (not because we pray, but rather because He hears us), but words of comfort and encouragement and sometimes simple hugs are self-emptying ways help the family keep it together.

    Fr. Stephen, it may seem “grim” in light of our immersion in a self-indulgent culture to speak of suffering, but the fact is that we are, in some ways already exposed to it and the good news is that it will have an end in joy inexpressible.

  15. And even though it all went wrong
    I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
    With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

  16. “I believe that everything is resolved in the Cross and that there is no other way forward.”

    Father, would you say that our gender (the topic of this 3 parter) and every existent thing IS a (the) Cross? I want to make a distinction between something finding it’s meaning “through” the Cross and the Cross itself, or the Cross of existence itself, meaning a character of this present existence, as opposed to existence (and it’s ultimate meaning) itself.

    Anther way to dimmly say what I am thinking is that if everything is a Cross and/or “mystery”, how can the Church affirm anything about this topic or anything else? If the topic is “The supreme court decision” and the answer is “the Cross”, well, then why speak about anything? Taking it to an extreme, is the Church is a mystery cult that does not really say anything positive about “how should I live”? If all is “hidden”, how can I make a reasonable defense for my faith even to myself, let alone to my neighbor?

    I suppose I am trying to say that this essay ended on a such a apophatic note that it seems to undermine the subject…

  17. Christopher,
    Yes. This is always a problem on the surface of an apophatic understanding. But an apophatic approach is actually an invitation into something deeper.

    I would say that true sexuality is suffering sexuality. That true existence is suffering existence. And by suffering I mean bearing the Cross of a certain givenness that surrounds us and living in a self-emptying manner.

    I could say a lot more, but it’s late.

  18. Christopher with ideology of gender in the modern world so divergent from reality it is difficult to say anything positive about it without first declaring that no matter what we think, that is not what our sexuality is. There is much more.

    Still, we cannot merely be apophatic or negating–that collapses into nihilism. In order to be real we have to become as little children.

    That is, I think, the other side of the Cross where our brokenness is healed and we are whole.

    That is the good news is it not?

    We are, in a sense, a mystery cult where the limits of discursive rational apologetics is transcended–not discarded but seen in light of what is greater: the ontological union with our Lord.

    Part of the journey toward more conscious union is learning about being a male or being a female in our particular situations.

    We have to enter that struggle. That is the only thing that gives life to our apologetics.

  19. Fr. Stephen,

    This is an older article, I know…still, if you have time, I would be grateful for your thoughts. It gets at something I have wondered about for years, ever since encountering C.S. Lewis’ quote as a young girl (which also came up in the comments to Part 2 of this series), “In relation to God, we are all female.” How can this be so, if male and female humans are equally made in the image of God?

    Or, to put it another way, how can our maleness and femaleness be equally images of God, if the highest image of Man is Christ (who is divine as well as human) and the highest image of Woman is his Mother (who is not)? It seems that there is a fundamental imbalance in what Man and Woman can even point us toward. Am I misunderstanding something?

    I am also a newcomer to the idea of kenosis. Perhaps even my desire for balance – to have the hope of glorifying God in my womanhood as fully as, though differently than, a man would in his manhood – is simply an assertion of pride and the old/false self (after all, how could “as fully” be measured anyway?). But I am reluctant to entirely cast aside the desire for symmetry.

  20. Jessica,
    “And so God created man in His own image. In the image of God He created him. Male and Female created He them.” Here, the first term, “Man,” is “Adam” which in this verse means the collective of humankind. Male and Female are separate terms, both of which describe the first term. In Hebrew, Adam is both the name for “Man” (humanity) as well as the proper name of the first male.

    But what it means to be truly, fully completely human, is both male and female. That also means that none of us exist as fully human alone, but only in communion with the rest of humanity. Fully human, also means “all of humanity.”

    It’s very difficult for us in our modern world because almost all of our models are about human beings as individuals. But the Scripture doesn’t even give us the fully human Christ without His Body the Church. To exist as a human being is to exist male and female. We need each other. That does not always look like marriage (cf. monastics), but neither does it ever appear singly. We exist as image of God in our completeness.

    As to Mary, Christ is fully God and fully man, Divine and Human (by nature). Mary is fully human and participates in the Divine. She is Human (by nature) and Divine (by grace). And every male can only be fully human (by nature) and fully divine (by grace). There is within it, a subordination of Mary to Christ, an asymmetry (such a good word). But there is also asymmetry in the Godhead. Not the subordinationism that is heretical, but the Father is the source of the Son, etc. The universe is hierarchical, but not oppressive. Self-emptying is always greeted with Divine fullness, “Wherefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, etc.”

    So, when you think of Christ as the highest image of man, you must not think of Him apart from His bride the Church. The male and female of Genesis intends to point us towards the Bridegroom and His Bride, where this is truly fulfilled. Pascha is the Wedding Feast, the consummation of all creation.

    I hope that might give you a fruitful direction as you continue thinking with this. It is marvelous ground for “theoria.”

  21. Jessica— a couple years ago two of my female friends and I wrestled deeply with this topic. We found Paul Evdokimov’s diptych, “Woman and the Salvation of the World” and “The Sacrament of Love” to be good Orthodox medicine against some of the Western distortions we had been raised with. C.S. Lewis was a great man and of course worthwhile reading, but he wasn’t Orthodox! And as Father Stephen says, there are some things you come to know about Christ by learning them from His Mother. 🙂

  22. Intriguing that our maleness/femaleness is hidden. It seems to be so obvious does it not?

    Yet, the hiddenness is definitely there. When I first started to consciously become a Christian about 40 years ago, I wanted to find out what being a Christian man meant–in a sense what Jesus Christ expected of me as a Christian and as a man in the way I comported myself.

    I am still pondering, probing and praying about it. I have learned a few things by the grace of God, enough to know that I don’t know much at all. Mostly I have found out those things by violating my manhood but I am not surprised about that.

    I return to Genesis often and look at what is shown to us there, I think it is all there somehow.

    There is always more. “Higher up and further in” Mysteries are mysteries not because they are impenetrable or ethereal but because they are a bit like the Tardus in Dr. Who, the further you move into them, the larger they become, the more real they become. Reality is revealed, not learned.

    The very first consequence for we humans when we embraced the lies of death was the schism between male and female. Adam’s “This woman you gave me…” hubris is but one evidence of that. It has been said that the path back to union with God necessarily includes the conscious healing of the schism.

    As St. Paul tells us, the union of male and female in marriage (and in ascetic struggles) reflects the union with Christ and His Church.

    The divinely created synergy between male and female seems to be an integral part of the warp and woof of all of creation.

    …and it is marvelous in His sight.

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