Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

Other hieratic epithets and titles elaborate the theme of Mary's majestic maternity: γη αγια58 θρονον Θεου;59 νεος παραδεισος;60 γεωργησασα αμπελον61 αγια and σεμνη.62 Superlatives and theophoric compounds also occur: παναγια63 πανυμνητος; υπερενδοξος; θεοχαριτωτος; θεονυμφευτος.64

Thekla praises Mary not only as the Mother of God but also as mankind's benefactor. Her generations are many and universal. By giving birth to God, she reconciled man to God.65 Reconciliation leads to salvation. Gratitude for salvation made possible by Mary fills the second strophe of the eighth ode:

Θελγεται πασα η Χριστου
εκκλησια Θεοτοκε, σου τω τοκω
οτι σωζονται παντες
αμαρτωλοι και πτωχοι
οι ποθ
εν σοι καταφευγοντες
The whole church of Christ delights
in your birth giving, O Theotokos,
because all sinners and poor in spirit
fleeing to you longingly are saved.
For like a good calm harbor you rescued
them from a harsh storm.
—vv. 159-154

By means of a familiar nautical metaphor Thekla describes the protection which the Theotokos offers troubled humanity:66

λιμην ως ευδιος
διεσωσας εσ ζαλης πικρας
Like a calm harbor
saved from a bitter storm
—vv. 26-27

Byzantine hopes of security, collectively and individually, rested in the Theotokos. The Byzantines also looked to Mary as the source of eternal life,67 joy,68 and freedom.69 The bright gifts of heaven came to them through the mediation of the Theotokos.

From the Theotokos' blessings to humanity in general Thekla singled out those which relate particularly to her sex. Our hymnwriting nun celebrates the Theotokos as the liberator of women. A major theme of the kanon and important to Thekla's love for the Theotokos, it is introduced in the third strophe of the third ode. The verb λυω which is associated with this theme appears first in this strophe:70

Εξ Αννης ν χαρα του γενους ηνθησας
και τικτεις Παρθενε, τον βασιλεα
Και συγχαιρουσι τω τοκω σου
αι γυναικες λυθεισαι δια σου της αρας.
From Anna blossomed the joy
of humankind. And you give birth
to the king, O Virgin. And women
by you from the curse, rejoice
together in your birth-giving.
—vv. 45-48

Although Mary's birth heralded the advent of joy to the entire universe, her maternity brought special joy to women. The Theotokos released women from the grief to which they had been condemned ever since their first mother ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. By giving birth to God, Mary freed her sisters from the sorrow inherited on account of Eve's disobedience.71 The present tense of συγχαιρουσι surely reflects Thekla's experience of liberation and joy. She rejoices, with other women, in the new paradise opened to them when Christ was born.

This theme of joy restored to women is restated more emphatically in the final strophe of the seventh ode:

Νυν η φυσις του θηλεος γεγηθε
νυν η λυπη πεπαυται χαρα δε ηνθησεν
οτι Μαρια ετεκεν
την χαραν του σωτηρα χαι Κυριον.
Now the female sex rejoiced.
Now sorrow has ended,
and joy blossomed because
Mary bore joy, the Savior and Lord.
—vv. 101-104

This strophe may have been composed by Klement and not by Thekla. If this is the case, we may credit him with sympathy and appreciation of women, an attitude which Theodore the Studite shared. In any case, the strophe accorded perfectly with Thekla's vision of woman's new improved status in the Christian dispensation.

In the fifth ode Thekla further expands her icon of the Theotokos as woman's liberator. As in the first passage discussed above,72 she begins with a statement of Mary's benefaction to humanity in general, and then turns to its specific application to women:

Ελυσας πικρας δουλειας
το γενος απαν, Παρθενε,
και ελευθερια Χριστου
την φυσιν του θηλεος
ετιμησας εν τω θειω τοκω σου.
You released the whole race from
bitter slavery, O Virgin and by the freedom
and by the freedom of Christ
you honored the female sex
by your divine birth-giving.
—vv. 79-83