Men, Manhood & Masculinity

Over the next five articles, we will embark on a brief exploration of the complex and often overlooked topic of being male. The articles will be reflective and open to discussion, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Be mindful of one another’s struggles – or their difficulties in speaking about them – and do all you can to encourage each other and to lift each other’s spirits.

Article 1: “Be a man!” To begin with we will look at some of the confusion around what it means to be a man today. Do we cling to narrow, old-fashioned images of masculinity? Have we become too soft? Are we lost in the clamor of society’s gender debate, unsure how to respond? Who or what currently influences our idea of masculinity?

Article 2: Being a man. In this article we consider the things that have shaped our own experiences, struggles and beliefs around growing into a man. We reflect on whether we can change what has influenced us in the past.

Article 3: Becoming more manly. Here we will reflect on ways of understanding and reaching authentic manhood.

Article 4: Beholden to other men. It’s important to learn from the experiences of others. Here we will discover some good resources, writers and role models that will help to develop our understanding of masculinity.

Article 5: “Behold the man!” Finally, we will contemplate the person of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of authentic manhood and masculinity.


Behold the Man

Masculinity
Ecce Homo, 1891, by Antonio Ciseri (1821–91), Palazzo Pitti, Florence

And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him and, plaiting a crown of thorns, they put it on his head. (Matt 27:28)

Pilate said to them, “Here is the man.” (John 19:5)

This is a staggering painting. In real life, it measures twelve and a half feet by nine and a half feet. Remarkably, it is framed from behind, a technique that places the viewer squarely within the canvas, inside the praetorium, a complicit observer only steps away from the central scene. This significant reversal of perspective strews breath-taking light across the background of the painting; the glare of the sun picks out individual faces in the crowd pressed against the barrier and reflects heat off the colossal government building. Inside the cooler, darker chamber all but one of the faces are turned away from the viewer; the fullness of each expression is left to the imagination. Strangely, the one illuminated and centrally sited character is not really the focus of the painting and appears transparent and disembodied.

There are a number of directional techniques within the painting that compel us to look around, perpetuating the impression that we are really present: the position of the checkered floor tiles tells us that we’re not facing the front of the enormous throng and our eyes are quickly drawn from them to a distant point at the end of the crowded thoroughfare; the pillars take our gaze both upwards and outwards to the groups in each annex of the chamber – the praetorian guard to the left, representing the military power of Rome, and perhaps a cluster of lawyers to the right, one with a legal scroll in his hand, representing its judiciary. The glances of the peripheral characters cause us to wonder what has caught their attention and we follow their stares; the guards scan the rooftops for signs of trouble while the lawyer appears to give a last look over his shoulder before departing. Maybe he knows his case holds no water. Finally, the gesticulating hand, as the point of convergence for the whole painting, re-centers our attention and introduces us to the man whom all the fuss is about.

In contrast to everyone else – except, perhaps, the woman by the pillar – he remains still and composed. Standing by the soldiers, his stature, his naked torso and the scarlet military robe reflect something of their temporal masculinity and power. Yet his hands are bound and his head is bowed; it’s not clear whether his eyes are open. We know his story: he’s on trial for crimes for which the authorities can find no evidence; he’s been brutally flogged, humiliated and denounced, and the people are baying for his blood. But there is neither hopeless resignation in his bearing nor belligerence or resistance, simply acceptance and compliance.

Behold the man. Behold him. Hold-him-in-being. Hold him before you and consider him. Ponder him. Wonder at him. Amongst all the surrounding opulence, dominion, academic and moral high ground, what possible examples of manhood are we to take from his meek acquiescence? Why does he not have the honor of manly discourse with a commanding equal, over a flagon of wine? Or, where is the masculine display of strength, righteousness and defense against the aggressor? But no, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

Everything we’ve been taught about what it means to be a successful man, about achieving status, power and riches is turned on its head by this otherworldly defendant: “If my kingship were of this world”, he says, “my servants would fight that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world”. Yet silhouetted against the bright, open sky, bearing the marks and crown of his mistreatment, his presence is imposing.

Compare this to the governor in the center of the scene, frantically occupying the crowds’ attention. Despite asserting his position of supremacy, (“Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”), does he look manly and authoritative? Conversely, we see little of his masculine features: a foot, part of the back of his head, a gnarled hand. The rest of him is swathed in a translucent robe lending him a spectral appearance, bereft of any real substance.

Look at the vacated space around him. Note how distance has been placed between him and his seat of authority, which he has abdicated in favor of pleasing the crowd. “You would have no power over me,” says the quiet man, “unless it had been given you from above”. The governor, having resigned his divinely ordained position by leaving his throne, wavers, isolated and afraid.

Note too, the same distance placed between him and the woman standing tragically behind the pillar; his wife, whose desperate plea he has just ignored: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream”. Her face, the only one wholly in view in the entire painting, carries the anguish of all abandoned and rejected women. Her foolish husband who, in a moment of weakness and self-preservation, has divorced himself from his masculine duties and from the concerns of his spouse, ends up lost and fragmented in a vacuum of his own creation, reaching out instead to the masses for affirmation.

And here we discover the crux of the painting’s symbolism with regard to our model of manhood.

On the one hand, we have the classical representation of worldly power, a tyrant in the limelight who has, in the process of condemning an innocent man, abandoned himself and the two key components of masculine integrity: duty before God and love of spouse. On the other, we see a man poised quietly in the wings, whose whole purpose in life has literally bound him to his duty before God and to the love of his spouse, above any temptations of worldly kingdoms or possessions. Later, the epistolist will write, “Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. This quiet man will give himself up, totally, freely, consciously, decisively and with unwavering resilience, right to the agonizing end. He does not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, he does not open his mouth, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.

Why is he doing this?

Because it is his mission and the whole point of his existence. “For this I was born”, he says, “and for this I have come into the world”. His answer is no casual response to the distant plight of humanity, no whim to be indulged for the sake of his greatness. On the contrary, he is under orders, his existence inseparable from his duties: “I was sent for this purpose”, he explains to his followers as he preaches in the synagogues throughout Judea. And so again, at this very point of consummation, what do we find? Obedience. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death”.

Fellow men, imbued in our sex is the seed of our mission; because we are men we have a task to carry out unto death, a task that involves bringing new life into the world and sacrificing our own lives for its sake. We must do this because it’s our inherent duty, stitched into the fabric of our being; anything less is a desertion of our masculine humanity.

“For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice”. From our vantage point in the painting we echo the confusion of the governor, “What is truth?”.

We can be grateful to the Pope Emeritus for taking up the reply,

God is truth itself, the sovereign and first truth. This formula brings us close to what Jesus means when he speaks of the truth, when he says that his purpose in coming into the world was to ‘bear witness to the truth’. Again and again in the world, truth and error, truth and untruth are almost inseparably mixed together. The truth in all its grandeur and purity does not appear. The world is ‘true’ to the extent that it reflects God: the creative logic, the eternal reason that brought it to birth. And it becomes more and more true the closer it draws to God. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility. ‘Bearing witness to the truth’ means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth).

Fellow men, we are in the world to fulfill our mission with the same single-mindedness: “The chalice that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. You know those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels”.

The path to true manhood is a path of dedicated service to God and to others. It is a narrow path that forswears all other paths leading to transitory riches, glory, power and success. It is a path of grit and resilience, a path laid out for us – like his – from birth, to death and resurrection. Your path. Do not depart from that path. Follow that path, keeping your eyes on him, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done”. And again, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”.

So I invite you today to look to Christ. When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ who is the fullness of humanity. And when you wonder about your role in the future of the world, look to Christ. Only in Christ will you fulfill your potential.

Pope John Paul II