Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Reflections of an Orthodox Feminist

God is spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24). Christ spoke these words to a Samaritan woman by the well. It was an extraordinary encounter and conversation. At that time Jewish and Gentile men thanked God that they were not women. Jewish rabbis never talked to women in public. They certainly never discussed theology with a member of the sex generally assumed to be inferior. No wonder then that the male disciples were astounded (John 4:27) when they saw their teacher openly talking with a woman who also belonged to a despised religious minority, instructing her how to worship God, and revealing for the first time to anyone that he was the Messiah (John 4:26) promised by the prophets.

In our church, the woman by the well is known as St. Photeine (Feb. 26) and is recognized as an apostle. For, in fact she brought Christ his first converts, according to the Gospel of St. John. The woman acted on her own initiative and out of her own faith. This remarkable episode is important for my views on women and the church.

Now let me backtrack. Some years ago-quite by accident, or was it Providence?-I began to study Byzantine hymnography, that is, the hymns of the Orthodox Church. This study has proved exciting and rewarding. First, as a philologist, a lover of language, especially Greek, I have delighted in exploring the use of post-classical Greek in Byzantium's sacred poetry. Unique in world literature, Orthodox hymnography gains grace and strength from this ancient language. Secondly, from these hymns this birth-right Orthodox woman came to appreciate the ideals and spirituality of her church. Someone has called these Greek hymns a poetical encyclopedia. But they are more than that. The hymns go straight to the heart of Orthodox Christian faith, encouraging the spirit to have hope in the new creation where there will be no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between male and female. What I read in the hymns confirmed this vision of a new order and ekklesia.

Let me briefly explain what I mean. The inspired poets of the hymns present a single, dominant image of God, Christ Philanthropos. God is portrayed as humankind's friend, forever patient and forgiving, always loving unconditionally and without exclusions. Who else would have dined with sinners and talked theology with a Samaritan woman? In thousands of Orthodox hymns divine love or philanthropia recurs like a glorious refrain.

Related to this is a second major theme of Orthodox theology and hymnography, theosis or deification. Regardless of sex, race or social class, every person can realize the divinity within him or herself. Through many centuries, theologians and hymnographers of Eastern Christendom have proclaimed that we can all become gods. In this teaching of the Greek Church lies more hope for progress from error to truth, from bondage to freedom, from the old to the new earth that was inaugurated when God was born of a woman.

In conjunction with the hymns, in order to understand them I had to read constantly the Scriptures and the writings of the Greek Church Fathers. Read together, the Scriptures, the Fathers and the hymns led me to appreciate an Orthodox tradition that was dynamic, creative, and inclusive, and open-ended for spiritual growth.

More recently my hymnographical studies took an unexpected turn, opening up a new area of investigation. During Lent I was reading one day the Lenten hymn On Fasting, written in the sixth century by Christendom's greatest liturgical poet, St. Romanos the Melodos. In it there is a miniature "paradise lost." Romanos presents the all too familiar story of Genesis 3 in very lively and dramatic fashion. The wily serpent persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. She, in turn, persuaded Adam. So both disobeyed God and were punished by exile from Eden. As had the author of I Timothy 2:13, the Byzantine hymnographer piles all the blame on Eve. In addition, he expresses sympathy for innocent Adam, woman's first victim. The drama concludes with two verses in which Romanos calls Eve "a snake more dangerous and snakier than the snake" (M-T, #51, 'ιθ' 3-4). The hissing sounds of these verses effectively turn Eve into a snake. The vehement attack on Eve shocked me, as well as the American translator of Romanos' hymns.

At that point I began to wonder about the anti-woman prejudice of my favorite hymnographer, the singer of Christ Philanthropos. Was sexist prejudice an aberration on his part or did he reflect a tradition of the church? Thus from my hymnographical studies was born a new research interest that was not merely academic.

I began to take notes whenever in the hymns or the Fathers I ran across mention of Eve, women, or references to woman, the female sex. Without any effort on my part, the cards rapidly multiplied. Very soon the accumulated notes indicated that Romanos was far from being a lone voice. I had on my desk evidence of a widespread, fully developed anti-woman theology, complete with selected texts, appropriate imagery and exegesis. Common also to other braches of Christianity, androcentrism, patriarchal prejudice and pride lie deeply imbedded in Orthodox tradition.