Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Reflections of an Orthodox Feminist

Tradition has not preserved the name of the woman who alone had understood Christ's three prophecies of his death (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), as well as the meaning of his messianic mission and kingship. This unknown woman disciple by her "good deed" assumed a traditional male role. In ancient Israel male prophets anointed the heads of kings. In the new creation a woman anoints the head of the King of Kings, who was soon to die on the cross for the life of the world.

With the end of the fourteenth chapter the male disciples disappear from the oldest account of Jesus' death and resurrection. And the female disciples enter Christian history, the only witnesses to the pain of Golgotha and to the joy of the first Pascha.

As Jesus died a brutal death, forsaken even by God (Mark l5:34), a loyal group of women disciples stood by; watching. "Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joset, and Salome. When He was in Galilee, they followed and served him" (Mark 15:40). The two important words are "followed and served" since they define Christian discipleship. The faithful group also included many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with Jesus.

Step by step the women followed the drama, to the cross and beyond. When Joseph of Arimathaea laid the body of Jesus in a tomb, "Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Joset were watching and took note of where he was buried" (Mark I5:47).

Then early on Sunday morning Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Joset, and Salome went to the tomb and saw that the entrance stone had been rolled away. And the angel told them that Jesus had risen (Mark 16:1-8). Women were thus the first to learn of the resurrection. According to the Gospel of Mark, eye-witness testimony for the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus comes from the lips of the women disciples. Hence in Byzantine sermons and hymns they are called mathetriai and euangelistriai, titles that were also assigned to the Samaritan woman by the well.

Thus women, not men, proved to be the true disciples. It was Salome, and not her self-seeking sons James and John, who was the real disciple of Christ. The so-called "weaker vessel" turned out to be the stronger. By demonstrating strength, faith, understanding and loyalty the women refute the sexist stereotype of "female nature." Yet the stereotype never lost its hold on the attitudes and praxis of the church. It survives, albeit in somewhat muted and coded forms.

Mark also introduces into the history of the church a most remarkable woman disciple, Mary of Magdala, the first person to see and speak with the Risen Lord. "He appeared first to Mary the Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons…" (Mark 16:9-11). Like the Samaritan woman, she went to tell what she had experienced. But Mary Magdalene was less successful. When the male disciples heard that Jesus was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe her. All four Gospels attest the prominence of Mary Magdalene in the intimate circle around Jesus and in the primitive church. All except Luke acknowledge her apostolic primacy (Mark 16:9-11; Matthew 25:9-10: John 20:11-18).

At a time when women counted for little or nothing at all, Mary found dignity and freedom in the movement led by Jesus. Fearlessly she defied conventional domestic female roles. She walked with Jesus all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, serving and being served, sharing a diakonia of love and liberation. To follow him was never easy and sometimes dangerous. And one day Jesus died on the Cross. The male disciples deserted him. But Mary Magdalene, with other women, still followed him, grieving and watching.

On the third day grief turned to joy; God exalted Mary Magdalene above all his followers, when He appeared and spoke to her by the tomb. Commanding her to proclaim the Resurrection, God empowered a woman to become the apostle to the apostles. "Go to my brothers and tell them… Mary the Magdalene went and announced to the disciples: "I have seen the Lord. And that he had said these things to her" (John 20:17-18). From a woman's experience and lips first came the euangelion, the good news of life and liberation for all of God's children, of love's triumph over evil and death. A true disciple and the first apostle, St. Mary Magdalene wears the brightest of halos.

These remarks began with the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus discussed theology. They end with Mary Magdalene to whom he revealed the resurrection. In their names the Gospels record women's discipleship and apostolic leadership in the infant church.

It is my hope that in their memory women of faith will claim their heritage; that men and women together will turn away from androcentrism and sexist prejudices to equal discipleship and diakonia. God is spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.

St Romanos

St. Romanos Melodos
Oct 1