“Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13
Let the faithful join with the Angels and children, singing to the conqueror of death: “Hosanna in the highest!” – Second Antiphon of Palm Sunday procession (Tridentine Mass)
The Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium is a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Beginning his reflection on Christ’s final night, he writes: “On the night of that Last Supper/Seated with His chosen band…” The Latin word translated as “chosen band” is frátribus. Some translate it more literally as brethren. It communicates an aspect of Christ and his Apostles that men would do well to ponder: männerbund. The Apostles were a band of brothers, sworn to their Lord and Master. For the men of our days seeking manhood, brotherhood, and the transcendent, this is worth meditating on. It is part of the power of the Church’s sanctifying power that it deepens and sacramentalizes our life in the world. The way of men is no exception.
Männerbund has existed in many forms throughout history. However, the basic concept describes a group of men bound together by a common task. This may be as basic as the defense of family and tribe, or as lofty as a great quest or crusade. Inherent in the concept is a common identity of those within, and an othering of those without. Trust must be higher among those within. Thus, it is common to find männerbunds which employ various kinds of initiations to those seeking to join. Newcomers must prove their devotion. Tacitus, writing his Roman account of the Germanic tribes at the end of the 1st century AD, described their mänerbund as a comitatus: a band of comites surrounding a leader or overlord:
Very noble birth or great services rendered by the father secure for lads the rank of a chief; such lads attach themselves to men of mature strength and of long approved valour. It is no shame to be seen among a chief’s followers. Even in his escort there are gradations of rank, dependent on the choice of the man to whom they are attached. These followers vie keenly with each other as to who shall rank first with his chief, the chiefs as to who shall have the most numerous and the bravest followers. It is an honour as well as a source of strength to be thus always surrounded by a large body of picked youths; it is an ornament in peace and a defence in war
When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one’s own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief.
Thus, the twin foundations of the männerbund are valor and fealty. Virtus et fides. The worthiness of the leader and the devotion of his band. Among the peoples of northern and western Europe, the overlord of a männerbund might often claim some sort of godly ancestry to further legitimize himself. When these peoples were converted to Christianity, the leader was both blessed by and accountable to the grace of God, and his comites to their leader.
Equivalents to this attitude can be found in the special attention given in Byzantine rites to the blessing of the Emperor, and even in Royal titles lasting to our day which ascribe their station “by the grace of God.” Similarly, knights would swear their oaths upon sacred relics. Importantly, the Faith embraced also the ancient Germanic ideal of devotion unto death. This was famously witnessed to at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Anglo-Saxon King Harold was slain in an attack by William’s forces. With soldiers deserting and the war clearly lost, the knights of the royal household gathered about the King’s body and fought to the last man.
When we begin to consider Christ and his band as a männerbund, several things become immediately apparent. First, Christ demonstrates a special regard for his disciples. We see the group retreat throughout the gospels from public preaching to private teaching. The proverbs and dark sayings which are given to the people are given in fuller form to the disciples, so that they will be prepared for what is coming. Second, we understand that this männerbund is engaged in a battle. However, we also know that it is not fundamentally a battle against an enemy of this world.
Rather, Christ and his Apostles are struggling against the dominion of Death itself, the rule of sin and the fallen spiritual powers which sought to establish it. Within this männerbund, there is the love and trust of brothers. In the garden, we see mention of a Beloved Disciple who reclines upon the Lord’s own bosom; at the end of his gospel, St. John identifies himself as this disciple. The modern world thinks of love only in its romantic and sexual senses, and so the love of brotherhood is something it has lost the language to understand.
Conversely, the treachery of Judas embodies the evil of a man at war plotting to see his brothers-in-arms slain by the enemy. We also understand better why the Twelve did not include Christ’s female disciples, such as Mary Magdalene. The particular trust and relationship of a männerbund is that of a band of brothers. Such was Christ’s trust in these men that he gave one of them care over his Blessed Mother, whose glory far exceeds theirs.
We must also face the stark fact of the cross. As we saw, the comites of the Germanic männerbund were honor-bound to die with their leader. And indeed, when confronted with Judas’ treachery and facing soldiers, Peter’s first reaction is to draw his sword and defend his Lord. It is only the same Lord’s word which stops him from going further. (Parenthetically, those who think that Christianity implies pacifism might reflect on the fact that the Apostles were armed, presumably with Christ’s knowledge). However, we know what happens next. When Christ is taken captive, his chosen band flees and deserts him. St. John’s gospel speaks of only one disciple who follows him into the high priest’s courtyard. Peter himself – the Rock on which Christ proclaimed his Church would be built – hangs back. When finally confronted, he swears three times that he does not even know Christ, fulfilling the Master’s own words. We see a männerbund scattered, and thus in the greatest shame. The Lord faces battle alone, giving his life on the cross for the destruction of sin and death and the harrowing of Hell itself.
Were this the end of the Apostolic männerbund, then this piece would be no more than a lesson of warning. But such was not to be. On the third day, the victorious Redeemer rises from his tomb. Throughout multiple encounters, the Apostles begin to understand what has occurred. St. John recounts how, sharing food on a shoreline, Christ redeems Peter and reinstates him to lead the flock. The mission of this band of brothers is only beginning. Christ reveals to Peter that he will in fact be called one day to follow his leader into death itself:
Amen, amen, I say to thee, When thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. (John 21:18)
The whole männerbund – save one – would give their lives willingly and joyfully for their Lord and Master. Tradition tells us that only St. John would escape a bloody martyrdom, bearing instead the cross of outliving all his brethren, enduring imprisonment at Patmos, and finally receiving the revelation contained in the Apocalypse. The glory of the Apostolic männerbund is not only restored, but magnified.
The man who embraces the Christian faith and binds himself to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church binds himself as well to the männerbund of Christ, the glorious conqueror of Death. In baptism, he swears to renounce the dark powers and their works. He is engaged in spiritual warfare. He lays down his spirit to God through death to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Perhaps he may one day be called to lay down his earthly life as well and win a crown of martyrdom. Lent in particular is a time of preparation for this. As the Collect prayer of Ash Wednesday states in the Tridentine Roman liturgy: “Support us, Lord, as with this Lenten fast we begin our Christian warfare, so that in doing battle against the spirit of evil we may be armed with the weapon of self-denial.”
Many men have grown up in a world several generations removed from the age when the manly virtus associated with männerbund was publicly valued and praised. Still less is it considered that Christianity might call men to embrace virtus and unite their manhood to Christ, who shared it with us. For many, the Christian virtues even seem effeminate. The public consciousness has some memory of Jesus, the nice moral teacher who told us not to judge anyone. It has all but forgotten the mysterious carpenter who came from the hills of Galilee and took a whip to the moneychangers. It is scandalized by the “primitive violence” of the Passion and Crucifixion. It lacks even the vitality to be stirred by the risen victor who will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. The talking heads cite Christ’s condemnation of the prideful Pharisee to prove that religion should be private and pass over Christ’s injunction to witness to the whole world.
There is an outward and an inward aspect to this battle. These are the lesser and the greater Holy War; the inner is greater because it is a victory on the spiritual plane which may be preserved even if the body itself be killed. Both are battles against the flesh, the world, and the Devil. In the outer conflict, the Christian man is bound by his fealty to Christ to keep the commandments. He must choose the Kingdom of God even if all the realms of earth be offered to him, as his Lord did before him. He must struggle against those powers on earth which seek to subvert and destroy the Divine order.
In the greater, inner conflict, he must subdue his passions through prayer and fasting. He must keep careful guard over his thoughts and attachments, lest they lead him astray. Most especially, he must work to orient his will such that it leads him toward Christ and away from Antichrist, realizing that there is no third option. One promises him “thy will be done”, and will end in his destruction. The other has him say “Thy will be done”, and lay down his self so that it may be perfected. Above all, the sacramental mysteries are his source of strength in the struggle. The liturgy unites him, along with creation, to the Divine.
To be of Christ’s männerbund is to take part in the greatest struggle of all. It is to partake in the victory of light over darkness and life over death. It is the männerbund honour-bound to follow its Lord into battle and death, with full assurance of victory. For men who choose this path, it is even more vital to reclaim the manly virtues which our world is close to losing entirely. These are as essential here below as above. Männerbund stems from human nature, and it is this nature which Christ has redeemed. This Easter, let us reflect on how we might unite our striving toward männerbund to the victory of our Lord. May we be faithful companions of his band.