Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

Since this symposium deals with the expanding roles of women in modern society, we do well to include some consideration of women in the Greek Orthodox Church. I can think of no more important, relevant and complex subject. A week-long symposium would be needed just to begin to do it justice. One brief paper can do no more than introduce this challenging subject. Fully aware that my comments cannot touch upon all the problems inherent in this subject, I offer them in the hope that this paper will arouse serious interest, raise questions which must be answered, and above all simulate open-minded study and informed discussion.

Because I believe that we cannot cope intelligently with the present and plan wisely for the future without taking history into account, most of this discussion is concerned with the past, the origins of the ideology and praxis of our Church vis-a-vis women. Orthodox women today share the experience of their foremothers, an experience of almost two thousand years. And what St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, said about women in the fifth century A.D. is still pertinent to the discussion of women's status in the church at the present time.

Orthodox Eve has a long and proud history in the royal priesthood1 to which all Orthodox Christians are called. Less well documented and less familiar than the history of Orthodox Adam, hers is, nonetheless, equally significant spiritually, quantitatively, as well as endlessly fascinating.

To illustrate this point let me introduce St. Elizabeth Thaumatourgos, whom our Church commemorates on April 24.2 Everyone knows St. George, the young warrior on the white horse, who with his long spear killed a dragon. But who has heard of this fifth-century abbess in Constantinople who also killed a dragon? On foot, armed only with a cross, Elizabeth approached the monster, spat at him and then trampled on him. Putting an end to the dragon's evil career, she liberated a Constantinopolitan suburb from terrorism.

Here I interject a plea. Orthodox women should study and claim their history in the church. After all, the daughters of Eve have been and are at least and very likely more than half of the royal priesthood for almost two thousand years. Just count the number of women mentioned by St. Paul in his letters and look around you the next time you attend a church service.

Orthodox Eve. the Christian woman, entered Christian history at its beginning. Following Christ with love and faith, she became a loyal mathetria (disciple). One of her names is Mary Magdalene (July 22).3 Contrary to customs and laws that confined women to the house and barred them from all public activities, she and other women disciples walked with Christ, through country and town, sharing his public ministry on earth. Unlike the male disciples, all of whom deserted him at the time of his arrest, Mary Magdalene never deserted her beloved teacher. Her loyalty was richly rewarded. Mary Magdalene was the first—as Byzantine theologians and hymnographers4 repeatedly remind us — to see the Risen Lord, the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection, and the first to receive the commission to go and proclaim the Good News of Christ's triumph over death. The Orthodox Church honors this woman as the "apostle to the apostles."

At Pentecost, when the Church was born, Orthodox Eve was present. Descending to earth, the Holy Spirit did not pass over souls housed in female bodies. Along with the male disciples women were also baptized with fire and filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:13-14; 2;1-4).

Women prophesied in the primitive Christian Church.5 St. Hermione (September 4)6 was a celebrated woman prophet, one of a quartet of prophesying sisters (Acts 21:7-9). Orthodox Eve was not only a prophet. She was also an apostle, traveling from town to town in the Roman Empire, teaching, preaching, healing and baptizing.7 Eve apostolos has many names. She is: St. Thekla (September 24),8 inducted into the apostolate by St. Paul; St. Mariamne (February 17),9 sister of St. Philip the apostle, and a successful missionary in Asia Minor; St. Photeine (February 26),10 the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4: 4-30), who brought to Christ his first converts; St. Jounia (May 17),11 praised by St. Paul as "outstanding among the apostles" (Romans 16:7) and St. Priscilla (February 13),12 one of St. Paul's most able collaborators (Romans 16:3). The great apostle also mentions other women whom he regarded always as his synergoi, equal co-workers, and never as his subordinates.

In addition to the primary roles of apostle and prophet Orthodox Eve assumed various other leadership roles in the first Christian communities. She is St. Phoebe (September 3),13 deacon of the church at Cenchreae, the seaport of Corinth; St. Apphia (November 22), apostle and church leader at Colossae (Philemon 1-2). She is Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), in whose house the first Christian community in Jerusalem met and she is also St. Nympha (February 28), apostle and church leader (Colossians 4: 15). Women spread the Gospel in a pagan world and their homes often served as the first Christian meeting places (I Corinthians 12:4-30). The body of Christ was neither hierarchal nor two tiered along gender lines. The vocations and charismata granted by the Holy Spirit were not gender related.