Today there seems to be an aversion in speaking of things both masculine and feminine, due to the social and political sphere, as well as the sexual relativism of our day. But to avoid speaking about the feminine and masculine dimensions to relationships we lose sight of something beautiful, unitive, and ultimately ordered by God’s Living Mind.
One of the characteristics of the term femininity is the term receptive. Receptivity, St. John Paul II reminds us, is not to be conflated with the term passivity. Receptivity can certainly be passive, but not in all of its instatiations. Receptivity can be an active, missionary approach to evangelization, to relationships, and to love itself.
Receptivity itself is in the Immanent Trinity, where we speak of the Second Person of the Trinity as “Beloved” and eternally begotten. A Son receives His identity as Son from His Father, and it is for this reason that we say that the Son of God was eternally Begotten of the Father. But the love between both is dynamic - the Father loves the Son as the initiator (principle), and the Son loves the Father by receiving His Love.
So when we think about masculinity and femininity manifesting a type of receptivity in a bodily manner, we can understand them as analogies for the inner life of God Himself. Yet, there is nonetheless a meaningful Tradition in dominantly using a Masculine language when speaking about God, and a feminine language when speaking about the Church. Why is this the case?
St. Thomas Aquinas makes an interesting point in his book “On Being and Essence.” He establishes that everything created by God has the composition of essence and existence. In that distinction he explains that our essence receives existence from God. In other words, without God, we are merely dust, but in every moment, we continue to live and move and have our being because we are receiving from God our existence.
The Church, which is created and formed by God, is receiving its existence perpetually by God. The Church does not initiate a relationship with God, but God in all three persons is always the one initiating a relationship with the Church. And in this sense, we receive love, salvation, revelation, dignity, truth, and so on from God.
St. John of the Cross declared that every soul, before God, is always feminine. That is, every soul before God is destined to participate as a bride of Christ, as one receiving from God His Body, His Salvation.
What confuses us about this is conflating the Immanent Trinity with what we call the Economic Trinity. The Economic Trinity is where we speak about God in relationship to creation, and the Church. The Immanent Trinity is where we speak about God in relationship to Himself. There is definitely a danger that a failure to integrate these two ways of speaking about God could lead to dichotomies. Nonetheless it remains a fact that the way God relates to Himself differs from how He relates to humanity.
For this reason we dominantly use masculine pronouns for the Trinity because it would involve some level of hubris to imply that we loved God first; or that we proposed a covenant with God first. This doesn’t mean that the pronouns used somehow imply God has a gender, or that God has no receptive manifestation of love. This would be reductionism, and it would also fail to understand how gendered pronouns are used as an analogy.
The point is, the analogy of masculine and feminine terminology is at the service of setting us straight about our relationship with God. It does not however, imply inferiority between the principle and receptive ways of loving. If we are to take seriously that the Father and the Son are co-equal in dignity, we will not then use such principles to imply inferiority amongst the sexes. Yet, when it comes to the Economic Trinity, we must admit that God is definitely superior to the Church in every possible way. And this is because our receptivity is absolute before God. That is to say, we simply cannot exist, move, live, or breathe without God’s first action.
What does it mean for the Church to be Receptive
I like to consider the power of receptivity by the analogy of what often takes place in regard to a proposal. Generally speaking, a man will propose to his wife, and he will do all sorts of things to accomplish this. He may buy her a ring, find a romantic location, pick the appropriate timing, bend the knee and finally ask the question. Yet the woman doesn’t seem to have to do much - she doesn’t need to - in the name of equality - go out and buy an apple-watch or engagement ring for her future husband. She does not have to pick the location or even the timing. She simply says either “yes” or “no.” Yet we can say that both parts of this proposal are equal in dignity, even though they aren’t the same.
The woman, in this scenario has the ability to crush the man with rejection (i.e. “no” or “it’s not you, it’s me”). Or to give to the man love by receiving him or accepting his proposal. Consider the man’s fear, nervousness, vulnerability. With one simple word, she holds all sorts of powers over his heart. She makes the judgment call about his worthiness. And by saying yes, not only is she responding to her own good, but she is also giving him the greatest gift! Love, acceptance, and receptivity.
When we apply this analogy to the mystery of the Church, we recognize that our “yes” to God, is not merely doing something for our own sake. Rather, it becomes an act of love of God for who He is, and what He has done for us! When we accept the Lord into our own body through the Eucharist (in truth and spirit), we are giving God the love back that He first offered us. Imagine the glory we give to God when we accept His proposal. For those who love God, this certainly will be our goal. To put a smile on God’s face as He proposes a relationship to us.
Receptive love therefore is not a narcissistic self-seeking approach to love. Rather it is, when speaking of God, always something that He deserves, and is a concrete way of giving Him love. We might begin that relationship with Him in seeking our own good, but eventually we must realize that our acceptance of God’s love is merely a manner of giving to God what He is owed. Allowing ourselves to be Loved can become the very act of Loving God. And that is part of our mission as a Church.
Thank you for this very enlightening and beautiful post, Fr. Chris! It explains so much about masculinity, feminity and the love of God for us.
The humanity of the Son of God requires Him to be humble or lowly towards His Father in order to receive His love; otherwise, He could not be our human High Priest mediator at the Father’s right hand. Our humanity requires us to be humble or lowly towards the members of the Godhead. This humility is defined as casting all of our care on God (cf. 1Peter 5:5-7). This is a very passive/receptive act because we present a void for Him to fill with His peace and strength. This is how we love God in response to His love for us. We love Him by becoming passive to Him so that He can act upon us and receive what He has for us. He then fills us with His agape love which is a fruit of the Spirit along with its other aspects (cf. Galatians 5: 22-23, 16-26). In this way, we draw near to God in order for Him to draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 5-10).