A little dust up recently took place in the Catholic corners of social media (when isn’t there a dust up, though, really?) when a now-deleted tweet suggested that a group of seminarians getting together to battle it out in an epic contest of gingerbread house making skills were being “effeminate and puerile.” What ensued, as you can probably guess, wasn’t pretty: a back and forth that ultimately went nowhere, with some asking how anyone could see making gingerbread houses as unacceptable for men while the person behind the tweet continued defending his position ad infinitum.
The question behind the tweet is one that sadly pops up on social media from time to time, and one that seems worth exploring in an effort to put an end to the arguing once and for all.
What does it mean to “be a man,” specifically when defined through the lens of our Catholic faith?
It wouldn’t be fair of me to engage in this discussion without providing a little disclaimer about myself at the onset. It’s a stretch for me to consider myself a manly man, whatever that means, and I don’t think of myself as such. I don’t have a beard; my day job as a therapist consists entirely of talking about feelings all day long; and I didn’t know how to change my car’s oil or tie a tie until my wife taught me when we were dating. I don’t know how to repair anything, I don’t really like eating steak, and… did I mention I spend 40 hours per week talking about feelings?
I find it fascinating that a seemingly large number of Catholic and non-Catholic Christians who label themselves as traditionalists buy into this secular idea of what masculinity means. I’ve seen plenty of comments on social media taking this approach: opining for the good ol’ days when men used to be men, which apparently means hunting your own meat, not helping with the kids, and having some weird ideas about what your wife owes you.
As a cradle Catholic who has been deeply immersed in a Catholic culture my entire life, I’ve always carried a much different idea of masculinity with me, one based on the masculinity shown by Christ himself. While he may have had a pretty epic beard and known his way around a carpenter shop, Jesus also showed that masculinity doesn’t mean what our culture seems to think it means.
Using Christ as our example, we quickly see that masculinity isn’t about aggression, dominance, and power, but rather about meekness, humility, and service.
In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says to all of us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” And earlier in Matthew, he instructed us: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.”
Meekness is part of the virtue of temperance, opposing the vice of anger, being calm, compassionate, and reasonable. It isn’t anger and aggression that make a man a man, but rather temperance, patience, and a sense of serenity that isn’t stripped by day-to-day frustrations.
Our culture’s idea of masculinity also has a great deal to do with pride, a show of bravado, knowing who’s the boss and acting like it - leading with authority, toughness, and even violence when deemed necessary. Talk about a polar opposite when compared to the ideal of masculinity shown to us by Jesus.
In his letter to the Philippians (2:5), Saint Paul lays it out for us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And it was precisely because of that humility that he was “highly exalted” and has “the name which is above every name.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the context of the typical social media tropes about men needing to be manly, is the ideal Jesus shows us of being a servant.
In John 13 we have one of the most profound examples: “He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.” Christ came to show us that the way to be a leader was to serve, to always put the needs of others before our own. This becomes an even more profound reality in the context of marriage.
The oft-avoided portion of the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians drives home exactly what it means to be a man for those of us called to the vocation of marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Being aggressive doesn’t make one a man. Being an authoritative leader doesn’t make one a man. Asserting oneself as the head of the household and explaining that one has certain rights because of that title no matter what anyone else has to say on the matter certainly doesn’t make one a man.
Instead, masculinity is about dying to oneself for the sake of others, most especially for our wives. It means putting ones needs behind the needs of others for whatever the reason. It means loving the other to the point of not asking for anything for oneself, not complaining, not demanding, not keeping score and demanding some sort of tit for tat arrangement.
The next time someone asks if you’d like to come over for a gingerbread house making contest, ask yourself “What would Jesus do?”, since he is our true example of what it means to be a man. I may not know Jesus as well as I should, but I’m pretty sure he’d be right there, making the absolute best cookie and candy house anyone has ever seen.
Tommy Tighe is a Catholic husband and father of five boys. You can find out more about him at CatholicHipster.com.
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