A Blessed Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!
Something that stands out to me about many icons of this Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is the portrayal of women taper bearers. In the iconography, they are portrayed not as small children like the Virgin Mary but perhaps teenagers as they are portrayed slightly smaller than Joachim and Anna but larger than Mary. It is amazing to me that so many modern Orthodox have such a strong reaction against girls serving in the altar, when we have a Major Feast which portrays exactly that – young women serving in the temple, carrying candles. Altar boys are basically taper bearers, carrying candles, which at least in Orthodox iconography girls are permitted to do.
I have heard numerous times that in fact girls are permitted to serve at the altar in some Orthodox churches in the Patriarch of Antioch. I have never seen this myself, but have heard it from several witnesses. Women do serve at the altar in convents as was permitted even by some Orthodox saints. In some traditions girls do serve as “myrrhbearing women/girls” during liturgical processions such as at Holy Friday. I remember reading that St John of Kronstadt in 19th Century Russia had girls serve as taper bearers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple and he used them in a procession to celebrate the Feast. Seems like a right practice based on the icon of the Feast.
5 thoughts on “The Feast of Female Taper Bearers”
The candlebearers appear to be below the steps that Mary ran up, not in the Holy of Holies.
Hi Father – a very picky point, but in your first paragraph you say, “portrayed slightly smaller than Mary and Joseph” – do you mean Joachim and Anna? I enjoy the blog immensely, by the way! Thank you for writing it!
Yes, I’ll correct that. Thanks.
Thanks, Fr. Ted for your thoughts. This is an important pastoral question and one that affects many families. First, I think one needs to realize that having altar “boys” is a rather new “innovation” in the life of the Church (i.e. mostly in the West and from the last 100 years or so). Previously, altar service was restricted to the higher orders of clergy. Second, we need to decouple altar service from any sense that it somehow leads to the presbytery (aka to young boys wanting to become priests). From a theological perspective, altar service is diaconal in nature, not sacradotal. From a practical perspective, if altar service led to the priesthood, the thousands of young men that have served in this capacity would be filling our seminaries and clergy vacancies and we know they are not. Setting aside any canonical proscriptions (that, BTW, would prohibit both boys and girls from serving), I suggest that there are positive reasons for allowing girls to do so. I list four below. (I have written on this in other contexts and would be glad to provide a more detailed explanation should anyone desire it ;-))
1) Serving in the altar connects one to the Liturgy more closely and serves as an important catechetical opportunity to not only learn the structure and focus of each part of the service, but by actively participating in the offering, helps to draw one closer to God in the process.
2) Not allowing girls to serve just because they are girls (something they can not control) can be spiritually harmful to a girl who desires to participate in this manner and is told that not only are her gifts not welcome, but she is somehow unworthy of doing so.
3) The present practice of essentially allowing any and all boys to serve does damage to the integrity of the church. Not only are there usually no moral or ethical qualifications necessary for doing so, but they are sometimes tonsured as a “reader” (a function in which they may or may not be able to actually do and almost never do do in their function as an altar server) or are dressed up as “sub-deacons” in order to get around the canonical proscription against lay people entering the altar space. In both cases, they devalue the actual role of the reader or sub-deacon. The Church becomes an institution that says one thing about these orders, but actually does something else, compromising its own integrity.
4) Unfortunately, is often engenders a sense of entitlement in young boys that is antithetical to the Gospel message of humility in the service to God and our neighbor.
Considering the example of our own iconography on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, I pray that the Church reevaluates this practice and opens it to ALL of our young people who wish to service in this manner.
Thank you for this post, Fr. Ted. We will be adding it to the St. Phoebe Center website. amm