Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Reflections of an Orthodox Feminist

her "divine glory." Hymns and prayers to Mary occur in all of our liturgies. Icons and churches testify to her omnipresence in the Orthodox oikoumene. Sermons in praise of Mary, preached by emperors as well as patriarchs, fill thick volumes.

Orthodoxy's unlimited veneration of the Theotokos, it is true, has given the church a "feminine face." It is equally true that veneration of the Theotokos has not brought honor or full dignity to women. History shows that the "trickle down" theory does not work. Mary's "divine glory" has, in fact, isolated her from the rest of womankind. The chasm that separates the Mother of God from God's daughters is visible and palpable in the architecture and praxis of our church.

In the apse of many Orthodox churches a majestic and beautiful Theotokos occupies sacred space. The entire congregation, male and female, worships in her presence, conscious of her grace and power. The sacred space around the Theotokos and close to her is, however, accessible only to males. It is strictly off-limits to all women. Altar boys serve in the hieron, but no altar girls. Because of our sex, women are prohibited from serving and worshiping God at the altar. As a result of this separation and exclusion, women experience alienation from the body of Christ. The shadow of Eve has not vanished in the brightness of Mary's "divine glory."

Where can we look for a model to bring about a change, to turn away from the traditional sexism of the institutional church? Where else than to the founder of Christianity and to the community he gathered around him? The oldest of the four Gospels, Mark opens a window to the past, enabling some light to shine into the present.

In unvarnished prose St. Mark reveals Jesus' liberating vision of community and service. By word and deed the Son of Man challenges outworn creeds, conventions and rituals. Rejecting ancient regulations for fasting Jesus advised against the futility of band-aid solutions and compromise: "but put new wine in new skins" (Mark 2:22). Traditional religious observances were less important to him than the physical and spiritual welfare of people. "The Sabbath was made for the sake of people, not people for the sake of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Jesus warned the religious establishment against confusing man-made traditions with divine laws. "You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions…How ingeniously you get around the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition" (Mark 7:8-9).

When He lived among us, taboos never hampered or restricted Christ's ministry. Ritually unclean and untouchable for twelve years, the woman with the issue of blood was cured, restored to her community, when she touched Jesus' garment (Mark 5:25-34). The dead were also ritually untouchable. But Jesus touched the dead daughter of Jairus, took the girl by the hand and restored her to life (Mark 5:39-42).

The iconoclasm of Jesus life-style and ministry made him, as he bitterly remarked, a prophet without honor in his own country, among His own people (Mark 6:1-6). His relatives thought him crazy and once tried to take him into custody (Mark 3:21). Jesus, however, all the way to the cross based His diakonia on divine law, the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31).

Within the community gathered around Jesus, as described in the oldest Gospel, diakonia was the ruling principle, its only guideline. Leadership and discipleship depended on service to humanity and love of God. Christ himself exemplified diakonia, selfless giving of love, acceptance of redemptive suffering and death. "For the Son of Man," he explains, "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

The male disciples however, did not understand the meanings of these words. They did not comprehend leadership as service, as Mark makes clear. Thinking in conventional patterns of power and domination, the disciples quarreled about who should be first among them (Mark 9:33-35). The brothers James and John indeed asked for positions of privilege when Jesus should enter into glory (Mark 10:35-40).

Nor did Jesus' male disciples fulfill the requirements of discipleship. In the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel St. Mark records their failure. Individually and as a group the inner circle of male disciples failed to follow and to serve their teacher at the time of his passion and death. Peter, James and John slept during Christ's agony in Gethsemane. Judas, another member of the twelve, betrayed him with a kiss. When Jesus was arrested, "abandoning him, they fled, all of them" (Mark 14:50). Finally, Peter denied him three times. With this demonstration of selfishness, lack of spiritual sensitivity, cowardice, to say nothing of perfidy, the paradigm of masculine superiority, of the stronger vessel, collapses. At the time of testing the male disciples proved not to the Jesus' true disciples.

In the same bleak chapter St. Mark begins to record the real discipleship of the female members of the community around Jesus. Their story begins with the anointing of Jesus by a woman disciple at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany (Mark 14:3-9). A contrast to the behavior of the male disciples is explicit.