Newcomers to Georgia sometimes form the opinion that the Georgian Church discriminates against women or that it perpetuates archaic societal roles for women. In some cases, outsiders even allege that the Church is implacably hostile to women and their status as people of equal merit to men. Some Georgian Christians see this as merely an ill-informed position, others see these allegations as slanderous and betraying a hostility to Christian principles.
Given that in Western secular society, such phenomena as no-fault divorce, pre-marital sex and access to abortion are seen as essential “rights” that women must enjoy to be considered as equal citizens, it is unsurprising that differences in opinion will arise over what acceptable manifestations of women’s status are between the Georgian Church and Western secular society. It should also be remembered that the Church does not operate in a cultural vacuum; it is natural that aspects of the underlying pre-Christian civilisation will endure amongst both laity and clergy, and some of these cultural beliefs can be difficult to reconcile with Christian teachings and secular humanism at times.
In the interests of promoting better understanding, I am presenting a short series of articles on Orthodox Christianity and the Status of Women. Please bear in mind these are not official Encyclicals of the Patriarchate, and they are not written by a theologian but an ordinary lay person. The first concerns the Orthodox concept of the status of the Virgin Mary and its relevance to the modern status of women within the Church. Subsequent articles will examine the Gender of the First Evangelists, the Gender of Clergy including Deaconesses, and the Orthodox Approach to Sexuality and Family Life.
In the Greek language, the Virgin Mary is often referred to as “Panagia” (“All-Holy”); this title is conferred on no other saint or human being in history. In Georgian, her title is “Ghvtismshobeli” (ღვთისმშობელი) meaning “God-Bearer”, referring to her bearing and giving birth to God the Son. . The Church recognises the Virgin Mary as the most important human being in history, so close to God that she was chosen by Him to conceive, bear and give birth to God’s only begotten Son.
According to Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, a noted theologian,
“No one is born free of the ancestral sin. The fall of Adam and Eve and its consequences were inherited by the whole human race. Of course even the Panagia could not be freed from the ancestral sin. The words of the Apostle Paul are clear: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3,23). In this apostolic passage we see that sin is understood as a deprivation of the glory of God and also that no one is exempt from sin. So the Panagia too was born with the ancestral sin. But when was she released from it? The answer to this question must be free of any scholastic conceptions.
First of all we must say again that the ancestral sin meant deprivation of the glory of God, alienation from God, the loss of communion with God. It also had physical consequences, however, because decay and death entered the bodies of Adam and Eve. In the Orthodox Church the inheritance of ancestral sin does not mean inheritance of the guilt of the ancestral sin, but rather of the consequences of sin, which are decay and death. Just as when the root of a plant becomes diseased, so do the branches and leaves, with Adam’s fall it was the same. The whole human race became ill. The decay and death which man inherits is the favourable climate for the nurture of passions. In this way man’s nous is darkened.
Therefore Christ’s assuming this mortal and passible body without sin, by His incarnation, helped to correct the consequences of Adam’s sin. Deification existed in the Old Testament as well, as did illumination of the nous, but death had not been abolished, and therefore the Prophets who saw God also went to Hades. Through Christ’s incarnation and Resurrection, human nature has been deified, and thus the possibility of being deified has been granted to every man. Since by holy Baptism we become members of the deified and risen body of Christ, we say that man is released from the ancestral sin by holy Baptism.
Applying these things to the case of the Panagia, we can understand her relationship to the ancestral sin and her liberation from it. The Panagia was born with the ancestral sin, she had all the consequences of decay and death in her body. When she entered the holy of holies she had attained deification. But this deification was not enough to rid her of those consequences which meant corruption and death, just because the divine nature had not been united with the human nature in the person of the Word. Thus it was at the moment when by the power of the Holy Spirit the divine nature was united with the human nature in the womb of the Panagia that the Panagia first tasted her release from the so-called ancestral sin and its consequences. Furthermore, at that moment there took place what Adam and Eve had failed to do in their free personal struggle. At the moment of the Annunciation the Panagia reached a higher state that that in which Adam and Eve were before the fall. She was granted to taste the final goal of creation, as we shall see in the other analyses.
Therefore for the Panagia no Pentecost, no Baptism was needed. What the Apostles experienced on the day of Pentecost, when they became members of the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and what happens to all of us in the sacrament of Baptism, happened to the Panagia on the day of the Annunciation. It was then that she was released from the ancestral sin, not that she had any guilt, but she was deified in soul and body by reason of her union with Christ.
This is the background for interpreting the words of St. John of Damaskos that on the day of the Annunciation the Panagia received the Holy Spirit, which purified her and gave her the power at the same time both to receive the divinity of the Word and to give birth. That is to say, the Panagia received from the Holy Spirit both purifying grace and the power to receive and give birth to the Word of God as man.”
The Virgin Mary’s liberation from humanity’s mortal state at the time of the Annunciation is supported by the events of her Dormition; as she “fell asleep”, her body miraculously disappeared rather than decaying and being entombed as our mortal bodies do.
That a young woman from an obscure province on the outskirts of the Roman Empire should be the vessel for God’s Incarnation on Earth (or in the Georgian poetic usage, “the vineyard, newly blossomed, young, beautiful, growing in Eden”) is remarkable. God of course, if he wished, had the power to create an all-powerful immortal Avatar of Himself on Earth, just as he created the angels, but to fulfill the prophecies instead He chose to be incarnated as a human being through a childbirth both mundane and miraculous; to be born of a virgin in a cattle shed, visited by unwashed shepherds and wealthy Magi, whisked away on the back of a donkey to Egypt to escape the massacres of Herod the Great, and raised with step-brothers in the humble home of a carpenter and his wife.
Jewish society at this time was tremendously patriarchal in nature; women could not own property, were often abandoned by their husbands without support, and if caught in adultery were stoned to death, often while their male lover escaped sanction. Rabbinical essays concerning the nature of women in light of the story of Adam and Eve often painted women as being deceitful, easily swayed by flattery, disobedient and wicked by nature; justifying their harsh and unfair treatment according to Jewish Law. The Hellenic-inspired Graeco-Roman civilisations of the Mediterranean at the time were no more liberal; women were routinely enslaved and sexually abused on a whim, murdered in family feuds or killed for sport in the Circuses. The more egalitarian Egyptian civilisation that saw many Empresses and significant female leaders was later displaced by patriarchal Hellenic civilisation under the Ptolemies.The entire region was a dark and unjust place for a woman.
That God would choose to reveal Himself to a woman before all others at the Annunciation, beget His Son within a woman’s body by the Holy Spirit, purge the debased legacy of death and corruption emanating from the Fall of man from a woman before any other human being, and have His Son’s character shaped by a woman, His mother, sends a clear and revolutionary message to the world, that the degraded status of women is dead and buried, and a new order in human affairs exists. Women henceforth were considered by the Church not only fit to be instructed as disciples (from the Latin for student) in contravention of the Jewish and Hellenic norms of the day, but also to take on the burden of leadership within religious communities and to be Apostles for the message of Christ to the world.
The Church hence teaches that men and women are of equal worth and merit, created in the Image and Likeness of their Maker, and possessed of individual spiritual and physical gifts of great worth. This contrasts greatly with the other two Abrahamic religions. The Church does not however make explicit that those gifts are identically allocated to both genders; a man cannot conceive and give birth for example. A Spiritual Father in a parish does not deal with parishioners in batches according to gender, race or family background; they are all individuals that must be ministered to in a manner befitting their individual needs.
Georgian Orthodox Christians today pay great respect to the Virgin Mary; every temple, home, office and car will contain an icon of her. Within the Divine Liturgy, marriage service, baptism and funeral services are repeated references to the Virgin Mary, usually praising her name by referring to “our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Ghvtismshobeli and ever virgin Mary”, at which point the congregation will cross themselves and face her icon. According to Church Tradition, Georgia was allocated to the Virgin Mary by casting lots, for her to travel here and evangelise the people (at the last minute, the Apostle Andrew the First-Called was allocated this task) and she is still considered the national Patron and Protector. Such reverence is she held in that her parents, Joachim and Anna, are frequently represented in icons and venerated.
Pre-Christian Georgian civilisation was known to be patriarchal, and social attitudes towards the status of women in Georgia are still more old-fashioned than many post-Soviet countries (even amongst pagans, atheists and Communists in Georgia). It is especially poignant that a country with deeply entrenched views on the status of women has been gifted with such an important patron as the Ghvtismshobeli and such a rich history of female saints and matryrs; a greater proportion of such heroines than most other countries of the Slavic lands, Middle East and Mediterreanean. One way to look at things would be that, because Georgia was in such need of female saints to inspire the country’s women and infuse the country’s men with respect and reverence, that God provided an abundance of them.