In the previous post on this theme, we examined the proposition that the Orthodox Church is hostile to women and their status as people of equal merit to men. I advanced the argument that God had turned the established gender politics of the time on its head by choosing to be incarnated in the womb of a woman, and consenting to be raised under the authority of a woman, as the Son of God.The early Church in turn recognised the elevated nature and status of the Virgin Mary as a clear sign of God’s plan for all of humanity, for both genders and all races.
The early Church transformed the code of conduct for the faithful to allow men and women equal access to all aspects of worship within the temple, with the exception of ordination to Priesthood, and dramatically reformed expectations regarding treatment of women in divorce cases, treatment of female indentured servants and slaves, and participation of women in Church administration and missionary activity. These reforms were revolutionary by the standards of the day and no doubt engendered antipathy from traditional Jews and the Hellenised communities of the Roman Empire, who saw such social radicalism as dangerous to the established order.
My next question is, if the Orthodox Church is supposedly hostile to the advancement of women’s status, why is it that Christ chose women as his first Evangelists, and why does the Church acknowledge the contributions of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, as “Apostles to the Apostles”, with such vigour and enthusiasm?
We need to return to the root of the matter, the life of Jesus Christ. As Mary Truesdell writes in “The Diaconate Now”;
Our Lord Jesus Christ…afforded woman a higher place than she ever had before.
In the Orient, woman was a mere possession of man, a chattel. In Greece, her life was one of seclusion and obscurity. In Rome, more honor was paid woman, but they were under the absolute domination of their fathers and later their husbands. Although the position of women was higher among the Hebrews, and there were several rare women who had the gift of prophecy, yet a Jewish man still blesses God who has not made him “a Gentile, a slave,…or a woman.” Women could only enter into the outer parts of the Temple; they were excused from keeping a great deal of the Law; their vows could be voided by husband or father, and their word was not taken at law. They were respected and honored in home life, but looked upon as inferior. When in the fullness of time God sent His Son, Christ humbled himself to be born of a woman, whom all generations shall call Blessed.
Throughout his ministry, our Lord showed an especial tenderness toward women and children. He condemned the prevailing idea of divorce, and proposed a high and sacred concept of marriage. His compassion for the widow is reflected in parable and miracle. Though weary, He stopped when mothers brought their children to him for blessing. Women came to him for healing and in penitence. Women sat at His feet to hear his words. His disciples often wondered at the respect he had for women, both bad and good. He was different from other rabbis. When He went about preaching and proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom, not a few women ministered to Him of their substance. At the foot of the Cross, faithful women stood until the end, when all but one of his chosen twelve had forsaken Him and fled; and they followed those who carried Jesus’ body to its burial, and went home to prepare spices and ointments for its anointing.
That this loving service was agreeable to the mind of Christ, we may learn from His choosing the same faithful women to become the first witnesses of His glorious resurrection.”
We are familiar with the story of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, who approached Christ’s tomb on the first Paschal morning, traumatised and heartbroken. Their spiritual leader had been tortured to death in front of them, their dreams of a peaceful new world order dashed, and they had not had time before the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday night to properly wash and embalm His body for the correct Jewish burial rites, cause for distress for devout Jewish ladies. Carrying myrrh and other supplies to his tomb for the preparation for burial, they were confronted with the sight of an empty tomb, and an angel proclaiming,
” Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him as He said to you.” (Mark 15:43–16:8).
For this reason, the Eight Myrrh-Bearers are known as “Apostles to the Apostles”, as they were the first people to be informed of, and to recognise, Christ’s Resurrection, and to spread the word of his Resurrection to the world. God choosing women to be the bearers of such dramatic news is not without significance; just as Christ’s Conception was announced only to women initially, so was his Resurrection. The importance of women in bearing witness to Christ’s mission, His divinity and His ultimate triumph over Death was acknowledged and affirmed by God on the first Pascha, and reiterated and celebrated for almost two millennia by His Church.
From Orthodox Wiki; ” There are eight women who are generally identified as the myrrh-bearers. Each of the four Gospels gives a different aspect of the roles of these eight women at the cross and at the tomb on Easter morning, perhaps since the eight women arrived in different groups and at different times. The eight are:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary)
- Mary the wife of Cleopas (or Alphaeus)
- Mary of Bethany
- Martha of Bethany
Of the eight, the first five are the more prominent and outspoken. The last three are included according to tradition. Five of these women were also very wealthy; the women of means were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany.
A confusing aspect in Gospel references to these women is that two of the Marys had a son named James. Mary, the wife of Alphaeus, was the mother of James, one of the Twelve Apostles; the Virgin Mary was the step-mother of James, the Lord’s step-brother (Matthew 13:55, Galatians 1:19).
In Eastern tradition, James, the Lord’s step-brother was Bishop of Jerusalem from 30-62 AD and never left the vicinity of Jerusalem. He is the James who rendered the decision of the council of Jerusalem in 48 AD (Acts 15:13-19). Eastern Tradition links James, the son of Alphaeus, with evangelism abroad, especially in Egypt where he was martyred.
One helpful tip that can clear up the confusion between these two Marys is the passage that refers to the Virgin Mary as the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 13:55). This Joseph is also called Barsabas, Justus, and Judas (Acts 1:23 and 15:22). Therefore, in Matthew 27:56, the women looking on from afar at the cross were Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary (that is, Mary the mother of James and Joseph), and Salome (the wife of Zebedee and the Virgin Mary’s step-daughter).
Matthew refers to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who is probably the Virgin Mary also from the context (Matthew 27:61 and 28:1). Such Church Fathers as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Palamas support this interpretation. Similarly, St. Gregory of Nyssa identifies “Mary, the mother of James” (Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10) as the Virgin Mary also.
These eight women had been together a lot during Jesus’ three-year public ministry. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others (Luke 8:3) are described as providing for Jesus out of their possessions. These same women had faithfully followed him from Galilee and had come up with him to Jerusalem (Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40-41, and Luke 23:55).”
The Gospel of Saint John , Chapter 20 presents perhaps one of the most dramatic records of what must have been by turns the most stressful and most joyous episodes of Mary Magdalene’s life;
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
It is worth noting that some of the remaining eleven Apostles were sceptical of the claims of Christ’s Resurrection emanating from these women; as traditional rural Jews they were probably inclined to discount what they considered to be the hysterical ravings of overstressed women. Christ’s appearance in their midst soon after must have caused them to re-appraise their prejudices.
If the Church were truly misogynist as some Western humanists complain, surely the Church would have suppressed these stories that document women to be worthy of being the first Apostles of Christ’s Resurrection, and therefore spiritually and intellectually equivalent to males. It has not engaged in such suppression; the Gospels that glorify women’s efforts in the development of Christ’s Church on Earth are recounted freely and enthusiastically in homilies by Orthodox priests every week. Our parish priests teach us that all human beings are equal in spiritual essence; no matter how much people of other genders, races or religions may confuse or aggravate us at times, we are all created in the Image and Likeness of God. We all carry the same divine spark and equally yearn for union with God.