Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

In Orthodox sermons and hymns Eve serves as the archetypal sinner. The words "sin" and "death" inevitably accompany her name. The contrary is true of Adam, her partner in original sin. He is seldom, if ever. associated with hamartia. Thus, St. Andrew of Crete, hierarch and hymnographer, laments in his penitential hymn, the Great Kanon, that his soul resembles Eve.40 During the Great Lent it is women who figure conspicuously as the paradigms of sin and repentance. Along with their sinful "first mother" Eve, St. Mary of Egypt and the "sinful woman" of Luke 7:36-50 achieved super-star billing in Lenten sermons and hymns.41 The most famous and beloved of these Lenten hymns is, of course, the troparion about the woman "who fell in many sins," composed by the ninth-century nun Kassia. The conspicuous absence of male sinners is due understandably to the moral "superiority" and strength of Eve's sons. To her daughters alone is attributed a "propensity to sin." Credit for this phrase belongs to St. John Chrysostom, who advised priests that women, indeed require more of his attention because of their “propensity to sin."42

This ideology based on women's special, inferior and sinful nature has dominated Orthodox attitudes toward the feminine half of the royal priesthood. Yet historically it has co-existed with other traditions and practices which did not limit women's life in the church along sexual lines. Thus, in the rich experience and glorious past of her church Orthodox Eve finds support for the expansion of her roles, models to inspire and challenge her faith and God-given gifts.

The earliest valuable models for contemporary Orthodox women come from the egalitarian community that Jesus gathered around him. They are Christ's women disciples.43 At a time when women counted for less than nothing ecclesiastically and socially, women like Mary of Magdala, Mary the Mother of James, Salome, Joanna and Susanna heard and accepted Jesus' call to discipleship.44 Three Gospels record that women "followed and served him." and together express the essence of Jesus' radical concept of discipleship.45 Despite the custom that forbade rabbis from teaching women, Jesus taught his female disciples new teachings about freedom and equality. Abandoning the traditional segregated life of women, the women disciples led public lives, openly traveling and living with Jesus, as they shared His ministry of love and healing. It was they who proved in the end to be the true disciples of Christ.

In the earliest of the four Gospels Mark draws a sharp contrast between the male and female disciples. The evangelist records the failure of the male followers of Christ to achieve true discipleship. They failed to understand Christ's concept of diakonia, the selfless giving of love, the acceptance of redemptive suffering and death. Attached to patriarchal patterns of power and status, the male disciples quarreled about first places in the kingdom of God.46 Individually and collectively, the twelve, the inner circle of male disciples, failed to "follow and serve" their teacher at the time of his passion and death. Peter, John and James slept during Christ's agony in Gethsemane. Judas betrayed Him with a kiss. And when He was arrested, "abandoning Him they fled, all of them" (Mark 14:50). Peter denied Him three times. With this demonstration of selfishness, lack of spiritual sensitivity, to say nothing of perfidy and cowardice on the part of the twelve male disciples, the patriarchal image of male superiority collapses.

At the end of Mark 14 the male disciples disappear from the oldest account of Jesus' death and Resurrection. Precisely at this point the story of the female disciples begins. In the bleak fourteenth chapter Mark relates the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman disciple at the home of Simon the leper at Bethany. The contrast between her act of homage and the behavior of the male disciples is explicit (Mark 14:3-72). This unnamed woman disciple alone had understood Christ's three allusions to his death, as well as the meaning of His messianic mission and kingship. She therefore assumed a traditional male role and anointed Jesus' head, just as in ancient Israel male prophets had anointed the heads of kings.47

The story of the women disciples reaches a supreme climax at the tomb where Jesus had been buried. In chapter 16 Mark describes how at sunrise on Sunday Mary Magdalene with two other women disciples went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. To their surprise they found the stone rolled away and heard from the angel that Christ had risen. According to all four Gospels the women disciples, the Myrophoroi, were the first to learn that Jesus had triumphantly trampled upon death. The first Christos Anesti fell from women's lips. Thus, the truth of Christianity's fundamental mystery, the Resurrection, depends entirely on their witness, on the word of "weak" and "inherently sinful" women.48 Surely there is no more astounding or significant fact in Christian history for the feminine half of the royal priesthood.

By their love, understanding, sensitivity, courage and loyalty these women proved to be Christ's only true disciples. The so-called "weaker vessel" was revealed to be the stronger, strong enough in fact to succeed where the male apostles had failed. These mathetriai are the first of countless women who have proved the sexist stereotypes false. Nevertheless, the stereotypes survive, hallowed by traditional patriarchal theology.