Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

Of this galaxy of saints the martyrs deserve special notice, the women who made God their absolute priority, even unto death. From the beginning women have paid blood tribute to their church. Orthodox Eve bears the names of martyrs too numerous to list here. She is, for example, Saints Catherine (November 25), Eirene (May 4, 5), Euphemia (September 16), Marina (July 17), Christina (July 24), and Barbara (December 4), all haloed heroines and "Great-Martyrs."

The willingness of Orthodox women to die for their faith has never weakened. During the protracted iconoclastic struggles of the eighth and ninth centuries courageous women, nuns and laywomen alike, defied imperial edicts and patriarchal decrees and defended the sacred traditions of Orthodoxy. The first martyr in the defense of the veneration of icons was a woman, St. Theodosia of Constantinople (May 28),21 whose example inspired other women. Yet on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in many Orthodox parishes, only males, priests and laymen, carry icons in the traditional procession. It is as if women did not contribute to the victory of 843. [Ed. This practice is changing where women are carry icons in the procession around the church.]

In times closer to our own, Orthodox Eve bears the bright names of the neo-martyrs Philothei (February 19), Akylina (September 27), Chryse (October 13), Kyranna (February 28) and Argyre (April 30).22 These Greek women suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Turks. Philothei in the 16th century, the others in the 18th.

By a martyr's death these women achieved equality that was denied them in life. In selecting souls pure and strong enough for martyrdom the Holy Spirit never excluded women. Thus the supreme role of martyr has been open to women. The Holy Spirit has always called women to sanctity and martyrdom, a call accepted by countless Orthodox women. Yet we insist that the Holy Spirit does not call Orthodox persons who are female to serve God in the ordained priesthood.

Along with our "church mothers," countless generations of Orthodox mothers are equally forgotten, the women who preserved and perpetuated the faith of their mothers and fathers. These millions of Orthodox Eves rate no mention in this prayer from the Triodion, when the church prays for the souls of our fathers and forefathers, grandfathers and foregrandfathers from the beginning and until recent times."23 Repeated again and again through many centuries, prayers like these erase women from the consciousness of the church, rendering invisible more than half of the royal priesthood. Such exclusive, androcentric and patriarchal perspectives can only alienate more and more women from the church.24

Furthermore, the contrast between the high honor paid to the Theotokos and the low estate of all other women deepens women's sense of alienation. It is true that Orthodoxy's exaltation of the Theotokos has given the church a "feminine face."25 On the other hand, it is equally true that veneration of the Theotokos has not brought honor or full dignity to women. The trickle down theory does not work any better in the church than it does in economics.

The architecture of our church as well its praxis makes palpable the stark contrast between the Theotokos' high visibility and Orthodox Eve's invisibility. Painted in the apse of many Orthodox churches, a majestic and beautiful Theotokos occupies and dominates sacred space. The sacred precinct around and close to her, however, is accessible only to males. As discussed previously, none of her sisters and daughters is allowed to enter the sanctuary to serve and worship God at the altar in front of her. Thus Mary is isolated from womankind, an irony that is not lost on Orthodox women seated at a safe distance from the altar, aware of the male-controlled sacred space from which all women are exiled because of their sex, as if their presence there would somehow pollute the sacred space. This is one more painful reminder that within the royal priesthood to which all Orthodox Christians are called, the sons of the Theotokos, by virtue of their sex, are more royal and priestly than her daughters.

Currently the status and roles of women in the Orthodox Church remain essentially as they were in the days of Origen and St. Nilus, determined by the anti-woman and androcentric ideology of the church fathers. According to the church fathers, both Greek and Latin, the female body defines woman, her "place" and roles within and outside the church. Antedating Freud by a millennium and a half, the fathers unanimously conclude that anatomy is woman's destiny no less in the church than in society. Moreover, history shows that gender-based discrimination in Christian ideology and praxis has legitimized and sanctified attitudes and structures that discriminate against and oppress women in western society and culture.

An American historian once commented that the "best study of mankind is woman." For our present discussion it might be said that the "best study of Orthodox womankind is the Greek church father", be he Clement of Alexandria, or Saints Cyril, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa or Epiphanios of Cyprus. None of them dissented from or repudiated the pronouncement of St. Cyril, Orthodoxy's prestigious dogmatic theologian and fervent champion of the Theotokos. In a neat nutshell St. Cyril of Alexandria summarized the fathers' view of woman's proper "place": "the male must always rule; the female must be in second class everywhere" (PG 68, 1068C). The fathers ruled out the possibility of equality and mutuality between the sexes. Their theology recognized only a ruler-subject relationship between males and females, whether in the home or church.