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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:

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. 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!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (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.

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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.

Icon of Joachim and Anna, Svetiskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

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.

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The Apostle Matthias was selected by lottery from the seventy close followers of Christ after Christ’s Resurrection to replace Judas Iscariot, who had hanged himself. The Apostle Matthias is reputed to be buried near Batumi, being the second of the Twelve Apostles to have been martyred in the service of the Church in Georgia (the other is the Apostle Simon the Zealot, martyred in Abkhazia).

The Election by Lottery of the Apostle Matthias

The four Gospels mention him only in passing, but there is a wealth of information on his life preserved through Church Tradition. Because he was already middle-aged at the time of his elevation, icons usually show him as an elderly man.

“The Holy Apostle Matthias was born at Bethlehem, and was a descendent of the Tribe of Judah. From his early childhood he studied the Law of God in accord with the Books of Scripture under the guidance of Saint Simeon the God-Receiver.

When the Lord Jesus Christ revealed Himself to the world, Saint Matthias believed in Him as the Messiah, followed constantly after Him and was numbered amongst the Seventy Disciples, whom the Lord “did send by twos before His face” (Lk. 10: 1).

After the Ascension of the Saviour, Saint Matthias was chosen by lot to replace amongst the 12 Apostles the fallen-away Judas Iscariot (Acts 1: 15-26). After the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Matthias preached the Gospel at Jerusalem and in Judea together with the other Apostles (Acts 6: 2, 8: 14). From Jerusalem he went with the Apostles Peter and Andrew to Syrian Antioch, and was in the Cappadocian city of Tianum and Sinope. Here the Apostle Matthias was locked into prison, from which he was miraculously freed by the Apostle Andrew the First-Called.

The Apostle Matthias journeyed after this to Amasia, a city on the shore of the sea. During a three year journey of the Apostle Andrew, Saint Matthias was with him at Edessa and Sebasteia. According to Church tradition, he was preaching at Pontine AEthiopia (presently Western Georgia) and Macedonia.

He was frequently subjected to deadly peril, but the Lord preserved him alive to further preach the Gospel. One time pagans forced the apostle to drink a poison potion. The apostle drank it and not only did he himself remain unharmed, but he also healed other prisoners which had been blinded by the potion. When Saint Matthias left the prison, the pagans searched for him in vain – since he had become invisible to them. Another time, when the pagans had become enraged intending to kill the apostle, the earth opened up and engulfed them.”
From “The Lives of the Saints”

Historians suggest that the Apostle Matthias was crucified at Gonio, near Batumi in Ajara, and buried there. Saint Dorotheus, the Bishop of Tyre in Lebanon during the reigns of Diocletian, Saint Constantine the Great and Julian the Apostate, wrote a detailed account of the lives of the saints, including the Apostle Matthias. He mentions, “Matthias preached the Gospel to barbarians and meat-eaters in the interior of Ethiopia, where the sea harbor of Hyssus is, at the mouth of the river Phasis. He died at Sebastopolis, and was buried there, near the Temple of the Sun.”

The Roman fortress of Gonio is still standing, and his grave is marked within.

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