St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

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In the Winter 2017 issue of THE WHEEL there is an article about St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, one of the members of the Russian royal family who was murdered in 1918 by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.  After the assassination of her husband, Elizabeth committed her energies and her wealth to establishing an order of sisters of mercy – nuns dedicated to the service of the needy people of Moscow and Russia.   Her goal was to establish women’s monasteries not based in what had become the traditional form of women’s convents in Russian Orthodoxy, but rather an order which was far more active in ministering to the poor.  She felt her order of women would far better attract educated women to serve the Church.  She conceived her ideas at a time when some in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church were also for the first time in centuries beginning to rethink the role of women in the Church.  In fact as the Russian Orthodox Church began to envision a separation of the Orthodox Church from the tsartist state at the beginning of the 20th Century, many ideas were being considered for the Church to fulfill its role in society and to shake off the shackles which had been imposed on the Church since the time of Peter the Great.

The article in THE WHEEL is written by Elena and Nadezhda Beliakova, “St. Elizabeth the New Martry: The Quest to Restore the Order of Deaconess.”  Despite the article’s title, the Beliakovas point out:

It should be noted in passing that Elizabeth was against the restoration of the liturgical function of deaconesses that existed in the early church because, as she put it in an explanatory note on the purpose of the convent:

“The conditions of Church life have changed. The consecration of the ancient deaconesses was necessitated by their participation in the baptism of adult women, the announcement of the baptized, and the old ritual of Communion, when a woman could enter the altar area.  Today, this is no longer needed, but there is a need to preach the Christian faith and help others following the example of the ancient diaconate on behalf of the Church and for the sake of Christ.”

St. Phoebe the Deaconess

I find a couple of things interesting in St. Elizabeth’s comment.  One thing is she acknowledges that changing historical conditions in the world as well as in the Church necessitate that the Church itself has to change, adapt, evolve to deal with these changes.  The reality of historical change had, at least in St. Elizabeth’s understanding, changed the needs of the church and its ministries.  Women deacons were less necessary since the baptism of adult women had virtually disappeared from the Church.  That would seem to mean that in our current day where the baptism of adults has become more frequent again and necessary because there are many adults who were never baptized as infants or in the Orthodox Church, the time is here for the church to again adapt to the changing historical realities.

Another point is that St. Elizabeth comments that there was a time in Orthodox Church history when women approached the altar to receive Holy Communion.  A practice of excluding women (and lay men for that matter) from approaching the altar for Communion is a change that happened in the Church.  It is not the oldest Tradition of the Church.  The received Tradition reflects changes that occurred in the life of the Church – the received Tradition, at least liturgically speaking, is not part of the unchanging nature of Orthodoxy.  Piety and practice have changed over time for many reasons.  The Church can always examine those changes and those reasons and decide that for its current mission – for its catechism and evangelism – that liturgical practices need to change again.  This may mean going back to the older way of doing things, or altering the received Tradition to better reflect the nature of the Church and its mission and message to the world.

Another comment in the article that I found interesting came from Metropolitan
Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky), Chairmen of the Department of Church Discipline.   In a report which was written specifically about the restoration of the order of the deaconess, Metropolitan Vladimir notes:

Even though we know from church history that in ancient times deaconesses mostly served as members of the clergy, we also know that the nature of women’s ministry has always conformed to the needs of the Church in each historical period.

His comment that deaconesses served as members of the clergy in the early church stands out to me.  There are many today who deny that very point and say the women deacons in the early church were exactly not part of the clergy of the Church.  Metropolitan Vladimir does see them as being part of the ordained clergy of the Church.  His comment that “the nature of women’s ministry has always conformed to the needs of the Church in each historical period” is also fascinating.  It would indicate that any discussion about women’s ministry in the Church should focus on what the current need of the Church is.  If we have need of specific women’s ministry in the 21st Century Church, which I think we do, then we should be able to establish it without much resistance from the Church.  The role of women in 21st Century Western society is very different than it was in traditional Orthodox cultures and in the past.   Women today are educated, have careers and take common leadership roles throughout society.  This in itself seems to necessitate that the Church open not only the discussion but the opportunities for women’s ministries today.

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God Fearing Women?

So they [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  (Mark 16:8)

The myrrhbearing women come to the tomb of Christ in the early morning of the Sunday following his crucifixion and burial.  According to Mark’s Gospel after being told by a young man (whose clothes apparently caught their attention as they describe them with some detail) that Jesus was risen from the dead, they say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid.”  But afraid of what or who?  And why?

The women disciples of Jesus weren’t afraid to be at His crucifixion as St. Mark reports:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.  (Mark 15:40-41)

The women disciples of Christ were at the crucifixion, while on the other hand it is said of the male disciples:  “And they all forsook Jesus, and fled.”  (Mark 14:50)  The women disciples were not afraid to be at the cross of Christ.  One of the Pentecostarian Hymns (3rd Thursday, Vespers) says: “After following in the steps of serving Him with devotion, O Myrrhbearers, you did not forsake Him even after His death…” Unlike the male apostles who had!

On the morning of the great Pascha, it is the women disciples of the Lord who come to the tomb of Christ:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. (Mark 16:1-2)

Where are the men disciples?  Mark doesn’t tell us much about them but John tells us that same day: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…”  (John 20:19).  The men disciples are trembling in fear behind closed doors – hiding, while it is the women who are out and  brave enough to pay homage to their crucified Lord.   The male chosen apostles are engaged mostly in self-preservation, which is no virtue in the spiritual Tradition of Orthodoxy.

The women disciples of the Lord were not afraid to be at His crucifixion, though the men disciples were.  As another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Thursday, Matins) says: “Bearing myrrh for Your burial, the women came secretly to the tomb at early dawn.  They feared the hatred of the Jews and the strength of the guard, but courage conquered weakness.”   The women disciples courageously conquered their fears, still wishing to serve their Lord even after His crucifixion, while the men disciples were not being manly but rather remained fearfully in hiding.

So what are we to make of Mark’s statement that the women disciples were so afraid that they didn’t want to tell anyone the Gospel they heard?  They weren’t afraid of the Romans at the crucifixion or of the Jewish leaders for they were willing to be at the cross and were willing to go to the tomb of Christ.  They didn’t fear their fellow Jews as the male apostles did.

One wonders if they were perhaps afraid of the men disciples –  afraid of how they would be received, believed and treated.  How was it possible that the almighty and all knowing God would chose to reveal His power, His salvation, His plan and His will to a group of nattering women rather than to those who imagined themselves sitting at the right and left hand of God?   Indeed, Luke reports:

Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  (Luke 24:10-11)

The male apostles were incredibly disrespectful of the women disciples of the Lord, dismissing their Gospel as an old wive’s tale.  These women who provided for Jesus and the males disciples out of their own means (Luke 8:3) find these same males as insufferable ingrates.    Jesus, as He often did during His ministry, severely rebukes His chosen male disciples for their failure to believe and their behavior toward the faithful women:

“Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”  (Mark 16:14)

Though Mark originally reports the women were too afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb and the resurrection, obviously they overcame their fear.

The Scriptures are silent about whether the male apostles ever apologized to the women disciples of the Lord for their treatment of them and for their disbelief.  This is a silence that has existed for centuries in the Church, it has become part of the sad tradition of the Church.  Women faithfully ministered to Christ, yet were often curtly dismissed by the male members of the Church, silenced and marginalized.  And the male leadership has continued to remain silent, not offering an apology for such behavior toward those women or any other who remained faithful disciples even when the male apostles and their successors abandoned our Lord.

In a Church which bases itself in its faithful “spending the remaining time of their life in repentance” (from the prayers of the Liturgy), it is amazing how hard we find it to actually practice repentance and asking forgiveness and having metanoia.  Church leaders are ever loathsome to have to apologize.   Women disciples have often been marginalized in the Church like the Myrrhbearers, silenced and deprived of the diaconate which the Apostles themselves recognized for women.  Even St. Paul recognized women deacons.  The male clergy could today recognize this and do what we are called to do and repent.  Consider the words of yet another Pentecostarian hymn (3rd Wednesday, Vespers):  “Hearing the joyful words of the angels sitting in the tomb of the Word, the women who had run there with good intentions knew that the purpose of their group would be changed.  No longer will you carry myrrh!  Instead, you will preach to the apostles: “He who was hidden in the earth is risen from hell!” Initiate them into the mystery of Him who became man for us!”

It was women who initiated the male apostles into the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation and of His resurrection, not the other way around.  The office of every male clergy of the church stems from the ministry and message of the Women disciples of the Lord.  That is how God ordained it!  The women Christians taught the male apostles how hard it would be to convert the world to Christ.   They taught them that they would have to be incredibly reliable witnesses if they ever wanted the world to believe anything they said.

The Samaritan Woman (1994): Women Disciples of the Lord

Sermon notes for THE SAMARITAN WOMAN

May 29, 1994         John 4:5-42

Christ is risen!

Today we have reached the 5th Sunday after Pascha. Our Sunday Gospel lessons continue to look at the reaction of different people to Christ and how they came to believe in him. We have heard the stories of Thomas the Apostle, the Myrrhbearing Women, the paralytic man, and today’s lesson is about the Samaritan woman. Next week the lesson is about a blind man. The gospel lessons tell us about how different people become disciples of Christ.

If you notice the pattern, the lessons are about first a man (Thomas), then women, (The Myrrhbearers), then a man (the paralytic), and then again today a woman.

Today, I want for just a few minutes to make a comment about the role of women in the church. This is a topic which causes much controversy today, and usually focuses on the ordination of women to the priesthood. I do not intend to focus on that part of the controversy, since I cannot add anything new to the debate, and I do not ordain others, so no matter what I or you might think, we cannot resolve it anyway.

There is one interesting note to this. In the history of the Orthodox Church, we find women in almost every role in the church. There are women who are called disciples such as the Myrrhbearing Women referred to as the women disciples of the Lord. There are women in our church who are called equal-to-the apostles such as Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and Nina of Georgia.  There are women evangelizers, which include Nina of Georgia, as well as the Myrrhbearers. And we must remember that Christ picked women to be the first to know of the resurrection, so they were the first evangelists to proclaim that Christ is risen. There are in our church’s history women martyrs, confessors, ascetics, women prophets, deacons, teachers, rulers, monastics. And perhaps even more significant, women have been recognized as saints in every one of these roles. Women have occupied almost every position in church life and been recognized as saints in those positions. I said almost every position, for in the history of our church, despite the exalted role of the Virgin Mother, and of the women disciples of the Lord and of all the other women glorified as saints in the church, there are no women who have been gloried as saints as either priest or bishop. In fact, despite a few claims today, there are no indisputable accounts in the history of the church of women serving as priest or bishop. And that is one of the major reasons today that the Orthodox Church does not ordain women today.

Now, as I said, I do not intend to wrestle with issues of ordination because I cannot resolve them. What I do want to comment on is a much simpler fact. When we read the New Testament, and when we look at the lives of saints, we come to understand that what is most important in our salvation is that we become faithful disciples of Christ, like all those people of the Gospel lessons. However it is that we come to know Christ, the truth is we all are being called to be his disciples, each of us whether male or female are asked to believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Our salvation, eternal life, is linked to our relationship to Jesus who is the Son of God. Our own ability to become one of God’s saints is linked to our personal willingness to be Christ’s disciple, to do as Jesus teaches us, to love and to forgive. We do not become saints by becoming ordained. No one is saved by being a priest. All of us are saved by our relationship to Jesus Christ, by becoming his disciples, by being part of the body of Christ. It is in this context that I believe St. Paul said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew. In Christ all of these distinctions are unimportant, because all of us are asked simply to love God and love neighbor, to love as Jesus loved us. And that aspect of being a disciple is equally accessible to all of us.

We see vividly in the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan Woman, the tensions between men and women. The woman is surprised that Jesus speaks to her publicly, because this was not considered proper behavior. Besides of course the fact that Jews would not normally accept food or drink from Samaritans. Yet Jesus speaks to her most respectfully and about the most theological things, even though her reputation is quite sordid having had 5 husbands. Jesus accepts her as an evangelist for himself, he allows her to be both disciple and preacher.

Again the male-female tensions are apparent when the disciples see Jesus speaking with this women, because this was not customarily accepted behavior. But Jesus taught those disciples to open their eyes to see the fields ripe for harvesting. He was asking them to see even their relationships with Samaritans and women in a new way. For all who are called by Christ are called to be his disciples, to be co-workers with one another on the road to the kingdom of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not leave for us an exact picture of how the Church was to be structured. He left us with teachings on how to be his disciples, to be co-workers with one another in building up this Church. He taught us to what degree we are to love one another, to what extent we are to forgive one another, how we are to love God. He revealed to us what God is like, so that each of us in our turn might become god-like.

We will accomplish this task only to the extent that we help each other, and pray for each other. Amen.

The Myrrhbearing Women

(Orinally from a May 2005 Sermon)

The Myrrhbearing women (Mark 15:43-16:8) were going to the tomb of  Christ to do an act of love – anoint the corpse of Jesus.  In Mark’s Gospel at least they are trying to give Jesus the proper burial he was denied when his body was hastily taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb.    (This is obviously a different tradition than the one recorded in John’s Gospel where Joseph of Arimathea carefully prepares the body of Jesus for burial – a tradition also famously celebrated in Orthodoxy on Holy Friday at Vespers.  Thus Orthodoxy celebrates two differing – and seemingly contradictory traditions surrounding the death of Christ.  Orthodoxy does recognize diversity in Tradition and incorporates differing Tradition in its worship). 

It is love that makes us holy in Christianity.

These women are an example of love and faithfulness.   Their devotion is to Christ.
They give an example to everyone -including all women – about what is important in Christianity – love, faithfulness, Christ Himself.  The Myrrhbearing Women are true disciples of Christ.    And we can learn from them and imitate them.

Jesus himself loved and cared for those which the rest of society rejected – even prostitutes, lepers, the woman with the flow of blood, the demon possessed. These women understood the example of Jesus and act upon it.  They go to the tomb to properly prepare the body of this executed criminal for its permanent rest.

Nothing prevents us from doing the same – from showing love and concern to outcasts, the imprisoned, shut-ins, the mentally ill.

In following Christ it is love not power or position which is so important.

These women had no official position, no power, they are not priests or bishops, but they are faithful disciples of Christ.

Too often we Christians have forgotten that simple truth that it is love for others not power over others which Christ taught us. 

Even the issue of ordination and the ordination of women becomes phrased in the language of power.

We have in the Church many women saints, some who are called  “Equal to the Apostles” and some are known as “Women disciples of the Lord.”   But we should note that in the history of Orthodoxy almost no parish priests have become saints, none are “Equal to the Apostles.”   In fact I have heard that in the entire history of the Orthodox Church less than  10 parish priests are considered saints.

You have a greater chance of becoming a saint as a woman than as a priest!    The narrow focus on the priesthood and debating who can become a priest has in fact limited and even crippled the Body of Christ as we have treated all other members and all other offices and the gifts of the Spirit as virtually worthless.

 But the reality of Church life is that sanctity and holiness are rarely found in the office of the parish priest.   You all would do well to imitate the women disciples of the Lord and find your way to Christ in the every day acts of charity and kindness which you can show to those who need your love.   

Where is Christ to be found or encountered?   Where ever an act of love is to be done, even if it is done to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ.