Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Heroines and Haloes

teaching (Acts 18:26); Photeine (Feb. 26)43, converted by Christ at the well (John 4:1-42), the first apostle to the Samaritans; Mariamne (Feb. 17), sister of the Apostle Philip and missionary in the cities of Asia Minor; Mary Magdalene (July 22), widely honored as the "apostle to the apostles;" Horaiozele (July 26)44, converted by St. Andrew the First-Called, the continuer of his apostolikon ergon.

During the first month of the liturgical year, four women-apostles are commemorated. Saints Xanthippe and Polyxena (Sept. 23)45, aristocratic sisters from Spain, were converted by St. Paul. Xanthippe's apostolic career was confined to her native land, but Polyxena's extended from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other. The latter is associated with the apostolates of two males46, St. Andrew who baptized her and St. Onesimos (Feb. 15), known from the New Testament.

St. Thekla the Great-Martyr (Sept. 24)47 is also honored for her apostolic life and work. She too was converted by St. Paul.Despite her mother's tears and her fiance's threats, Thekla cut her hair, donned male clothing and ran away to join Paul. She was first his disciple and then his co-worker in the mission field. Then Christ, through St. Paul, commissioned Thekla to be an apostle. On her own she preached and baptized in the provinces of Asia Minor until her death. In many Byzantine hymns and sermons this woman who defied the ancient gender taboos of her time is given the exalted title and rank of apostolos.48

In defiance of a patriarchal culture that inflicted silence on women and restricted them to private domestic roles, the woman-apostle of the first century led a public life whose success depended on her spoken word, the logos. It is hard for us in the twentieth century to imagine how revolutionary and unconventional this life-style was for a woman at that time.

St. Hermione (Sept.4)49, prophet, healer, teacher and preacher, illustrates the public career of the woman-apostle. One of the four prophet-daughters of St. Philip the Deacon (Acts 21:8), she is vividly portrayed in a kanon composed for her feast day by the ninth-century hymnographer St. Joseph the Hymnographer.50

Empowered by the Holy Spirit with many gifts, Hermione is a virtuoso healer51, the envy of her medical colleagues, presumably all male. With her "speaking-of-God tongue"52 she is able to heal sick souls. Like Christ and the male apostles, St. Hermione used words to cure physical and spiritual ills. But in this case the healing words fall from a woman's lips.

An inspired teacher and preacher, Hermione relied on the right use of words to communicate a new faith to an unbelieving pagan world.53 The admiring hymnographer describes her words as full of wisdom, "shining like flashes of lightning in the dark"54 and winning many souls for Christ.

The divine Logos and the Holy Spirit indeed never deserted St. Hermione. A condemned Christian woman standing before Roman judges, Hermione "preached the incarnation of the Word."55 And at the end, in the face of a martyr's death, this woman-apostle triumphs once more and "proclaims things divine."56

The lives of Hermione and other women saints are more than interesting stories. To remember these daughters of light is to pay them deserved honor and at the same time to relive epic moments of Christianity's history. But beyond this, Orthodoxy's women saints pose a question that demands an honest answer. By what prejudices are Christian women in 1985 denied equal dignity and full participation in the life of the church?

Finally, what do these heroines and halos really mean to us Orthodox, for today and for tomorrow?

Chicago Diocesan Clergy-Laity Banquet September 26, 1985.


1See E. C. Topping, "Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride…," Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1 (1983), 7-17; "Belittling Eve," Greek Accent 5 ((1984), 23-27, 49, 51.
2A frequent phrase fournd in Byznatine hymns to the Mother of God
3See Nicodemos Hagioreites, Synaxaristes, 2 volx. in 1 (Athens, 1868), II, 107. Hereafter cited as Nicodemos.
4For a fuller account see F. Halkin, "Sainte Elisabeth d' Heraclee, Abbesse a Constantinople. Analecta Bollandiana 91 (1973), 248-264.
5Nikodemos. II, 172-173
6Acts I:14 states that a "group of women" were in the "room upstairs" when the Holy Spirit descended as promised by Christ.
7Hosia Martha. the martyr Kalliste. the Forty Virgins and Ascetics. See Nikodemos. 1, 4-5
8Ibid. 50.
9Ibid. 52
10Ibid., 42-43. This empress-saint was eulogized by St. Gregory of Nyssa after her death in 387 A.D. K.G. Holum, Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1982) 23-26, quotes from the eloquent eulogy.
11Nikodemos. 1. 31. My brief discussion of this imperial woman saint is based on Holum, op. cit., 79-111, 175-216.
12Holum, op. cit., 213-216. Later, two other empresses who convened holy synods were also canonized: Saints Eirene and Theodora, August 9 and February 11 respectively.