The Orthodox Pages



  19th May 2011


































































































































I was asked to talk about women saints because the majority of saints in the Church’s calendar are male saints and at times it appears that sainthood is an exclusive club just for men which excludes female membership. This is not true; all people are called to be saints whether male or female, but the roles for each are different and it is these roles that have determined why the male saints are more well known than the female saints. The role of a woman in the church is the same as the role of a man in the church. It is to be a member of the body of Christ and as members of the Church everyone belongs to the royal priesthood, but men have also been called to the ordained priesthood and it is this special and exclusive priesthood that has made the difference in numbers between men and women.

There are just as many women martyrs as there are men, and just as many women who are recognized by the church as Great-martyrs as there are men. Among the ascetics saints we have the early fathers like St. Anthony, St. Pachomius and St Macarius who established the monastic order for men. In time monasteries for women were also established, but in those early days of monasticism it was the male monastics that received fame throughout the world for their ascetical struggles. From later periods when monasticism was well established we have many female monastics who have been recognized as saints through their ascetic lives. The only area in which we see that men have surpassed women in numbers is the priesthood to which women have not been called to serve. The majority of the well known saints come from this exclusive office and more so from the Hierarchy. To be a martyr or a monk did not need any form of education other that to be instructed in the faith, but to be a bishop of the church one had to be well educated because their role was to instruct the faithful and to protect the faith. Many of the Church fathers have left us with a wealth of writings in the Christian faith which even to this day no theologian has surpassed and these writings are read and quoted as authorities than safeguard the true understanding of the Gospels and the Christian dogmas.

The bishops of the church are the successors of the apostles and although women are barred from this exclusive office, there are many women who have been recognized by the church as equal to the apostles. For example St. Thecla who was a co-worker of St. Paul, St. Photini, the Samaritan women mentioned in the Gospels and who is remembered this coming Sunday which is known as the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Empress Helen, the mother of St. Constantine, Princess Olga of Russia and St Nina the enlightener of Georgia. The Byzantine Empresses also played a decisive role in protecting the true faith like St. Irene and St. Theodora who were responsible for re-establishing the veneration of Icons after they were violently removed from the church in the 8th and 9th centuries.
There may not be as many women saints as there are men, but this does not diminish the role that women have played in the Church. They have been equally responsible for spreading the Christian faith as have men and in many cases it was the Christian wife or mother that was the influence behind many of the male saints. The Church cannot be accused of honouring men more than women because the greatest saint of all is Mary the Mother of God who is honoured more than any other person in the history of the church. Through her service to mankind she became the doorway to heaven, a ladder joining heaven to earth and sits as the Queen of Heaven at her Son’s side, having entered into perfect union with God and watches over the destiny of the world. No other person is honoured and remembered by the church in all her services and no other person is beseeched in prayer as our intercessor before Christ more than Mary the Mother of God.
Thus, women should not feel hard done by. The church does not discriminate between men and women, but recognizes and honours the service that each person has given to the Church on an equal level and in accordance to the role each had played in the salvation of mankind. The Gospels reveal to us the twelve Apostles by name, but from the wider circle of Jesus’ disciples we are given the names of some of the many women who also followed Christ and who after the resurrection were responsible for spreading the Christian faith to various parts of the pagan empire. These women were honoured by Christ himself for the faith and bravery they showed which put to shame the apostles fear and lack of faith.
At the crucifixion we see that out of fear the Apostles deserted Jesus and left him alone, only John remained. On the other hand, the women disciples remained loyal and courageous and stood by him until the end. And even then they didn’t desert him, but remained and saw where his body would be laid. Due to their great love for Jesus they became so brave and bold that in spite of the climate of panic that circulated the streets, they risked all danger by coming very early while it was still dark to the tomb to bring Christ sweet spices mingles with their tears, with their love and devotion. They are ready to endure everything for Christ and even to die for him. That is why Christ honoured these women above his disciples and appeared to them first. And because they first heard the good news of the Resurrection they became Apostles to the Apostles. Two Sundays ago the Church honoured these brave women with the Sunday dedicated to the Myrrhbearers.
As the request for today’s talk was to speak to you about the lives of women saints, I think it is appropriate to begin with St Mary Magdalene who was also connected to last week’s talk on the Gospel phrase “Touch me not”, and is also recognized by the Church with the title “Equal to the Apostles”.
Before we look at Mary’s life and where she went and did after the resurrection, we need to clear up a widely accepted misunderstanding that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Mary has been the victim of western writers who have unfoundedly associated her name with another unnamed woman in the Gospels. The Orthodox Church has never shared this opinion and even considers that Mary was a virgin.
The best way to clear up this misunderstanding is to see the passages from the New Testament which refer to Mary Magdalene so that we can have a proper, clear and unbiased understanding of who she wasn’t. Magdalene is of course not her family surname. She is called Magdalene because she came from the small city of Magdala on the banks of Lake Genesaret in Galilee.
There are at least 11 times when Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels. St Mark says that “when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.” (Mark 16: 9-10) Part of the misunderstanding is that western scholars identified seven devils as meaning that Mary was a sinful woman and that was why she was possessed with demons. The Gospels are full of people being possessed with demons, but none are mentioned that they were possessed as a result of their sexual behaviour. None are mentioned that they were possessed because they were sinners. If that was the case, then what can we say about the man that was possessed by a legion of demons or the young lad who was possessed by a devil from his early childhood? Why do we automatically assume that when a woman is possessed by demons then it has to be in connection with sexual behaviour?
St. Luke tells us that as Jesus went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: “the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.” (Luke: 8: 2-3) Mary then was not the only woman cured of demons, but other women who followed Christ were also cured of demons. If demonic possession means prostitution can we then assume that Jesus was followed from city to city by a group of female prostitutes? Of course not!
Many of the Church Fathers, in interpreting what these seven demons refer to, have said that we should not think that Mary was actually possessed with demons, but just as the graces of the Holy Spirit are numbered and called by the prophet Isaiah the seven spirits of grace which are the spirits of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of might, of knowledge, of godliness and fear of God, so also the opposite of these are called seven demons. Every spirit of grace, every spirit of light has its counterpart spirit of darkness. Whatever the interpretation, Mary was certainly spiritually ill, but that does not make her a sinner, least of all, a prostitute.
In all the other cases where Mary is mentioned in the Gospels it is in connection with the crucifixion and the resurrection. To save time we need not look at each and every occasion where she is mentioned; it is enough to say that nowhere in these passages is there anything that would even suggest the slightest hint that Mary led an inappropriate or unethical life before she met Christ. The only thing inappropriate is her name: the fact that she was called Mary which we will now see.
There are two episodes in the Gospels which although seem almost identical to each other are in fact two different occasions. In these two episodes three people take part: the central character which is Christ and two different women. The name of one of these women is completely unknown to us, but the second is Mary from Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Lets then see these two episodes beginning with the episode of the unknown woman. Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the story of the unknown woman. Matthew and Mark are almost identical whereas in Luke there is a slight variation which could be interpreted as being another episode with another woman.
Matthew tells us that Christ was invited to dinner at the house of a certain Pharisee named Simon, in the village Bethany. While he sat at meat a woman came having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head. The reading continues: “But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.” (Matth: 26:6-12)
Notice that in this version and in Mark’s which we shall hear in a moment the unidentified woman is simply referred to as a woman whereas only in Luke is the woman referred to as a sinful woman.
Mark says of the same event: “And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.” (Mark 14:3-8)
Also note that in Matthew’s version the disciples were scandalized by what they considered was a waste of the ointment which could have been sold for a good price. In Mark’s version it says that some were scandalized. In both cases it was not a single disciple but more than one.
St. Luke speaks of a similar event although he doesn’t mention where the event took place. “And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7: 36-39)
This could be the same event that Matthew and Mark describe or it could be a different episode altogether. There are enough discrepancies to suggest this. The sinful woman and her actions are so very different. In Matthew and Mark the woman was not weeping and poured the precious ointment on Christ’s head, but in this version we have a sinful woman who began to wash Christ’s feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed his feet and then anointed his feet with the ointment. There is no mention of disciples or anyone else being scandalized by the waste of ointment, but only a scandalized Pharisee because Christ let a sinful woman touch him.
That then is the account of the unknown woman or women. Let’s now see the episode involving Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This account is found only in the Gospel according to St. John. John mentions the event twice; once before Lazarus’ death and again after his resurrection. He says that “a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)” (John 11: 1-2)
After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he was invited to their house for dinner. It says: “Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.” (John 12: 1-8)
This account, although it shares similar elements to the others, is certainly different. The woman is identified as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and only one disciple is scandalized and is identified as Judas Iscariot. It is possible that as both the events took place in Bethany the town of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, that Mary was an eye witness or heard about the event that took place in the house of Simon the Pharisee and having seen that it pleased Jesus and heard his comments that the unknown woman did it in anticipation of his burial, decided that she would do the same now that Jesus was a guest in her house. If Mary was present at the Pharisee’s house she would have also heard Jesus reprimanding Simon for his cold reception and lack of respect towards him telling him that when he entered into his house he didn’t give him water to wash his feet as was the custom, but the woman washed them with her tears. He didn’t greet him with a friendly kiss as was the custom, but the woman from the time he came in hadn’t stopped kissing his feet. He didn’t anoint his head with ordinary oil as was the custom but the woman anointed his feet with precious ointment. If Mary had seen or heard what took place in the Pharisee’s house then she made sure to do the same because Jesus told Simon that that was how he should have received him into his house but didn’t.
Having heard from all four Gospels we can now ask where does Mary Magdalene fit in to all this? According to what we have heard, her name is nowhere to be seen. She has simply fallen victim by coincidence and a confusion because of her name. Let see then how this confusion came about and solve the mystery. For clarity’s sake I will refer to the possible three episodes as only two.
During the middle ages, Roman Catholic writers confused the two separate episodes and the two women involved and considered than they referred to one episode. One reason was that the first event took place in Bethany and the account involving Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus also took place in Bethany which was their hometown.
Then quite arbitrarily, without any source from any existing ecclesiastical tradition, these western writers identify the sinful woman with Mary Magdalene and even confused her with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus because both are called Mary.
There is also a possibility that the mix up in the identity of the two Maries occurred because on the 4th of May the Church commemorates the Translation of Lazarus’ relics from Cyprus to Constantinople and also on the same day is commemorated the Translation of Mary Magdalene’s relics from Ephesus to Constantinople. Thus for these western writers it seemed logical to think that for them to be remembered on the same day Mary Magdalene must be Lazarus’ sister.
After this confusion, various literary works began to be written with an imaginary content on the supposed unethical life of Mary Magdalene which intensified the confusion right up to our present day. Over the years there has been so much distortion and slandering of Mary Magdalene’s name that very many of the faithful have fallen victim to this extremely wrong opinion that they actually believe that it is all written in the Gospels.
We do not know much about the life of Mary Magdalene. There are various legends of her that have been around for centuries especially in France and Italy and some of these details have passed over into the Orthodox world. According to these legends Mary was from a noble family whose parent’s names were Syrus and Eucharistia. In the western legends Mary is a passionate and sinner youth, but in the Greek versions she is described as a God-fearing virgin who spent all her time studying the Scriptures and paid special attention to the Psalms and the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. I think we should not put too much emphasis on her life before she met Christ but concentrate only on what tradition has given us after the resurrection.
Byzantine historians say that when the apostles left Jerusalem to spread the good news of the Resurrection, Mary traveled to Rome and preached the word of God throughout Italy. Tradition relates that in Italy Mary Magdalene was given a hearing before the Emperor Tiberias (14-37 A.D.). Standing before the Emperor she said, “Christ is Risen!” At this the Emperor pointed to an egg on his table and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” After making this statement it is said the egg immediately turned blood red. She then told the emperor that in his Province of Judea the unjustly condemned Jesus had been executed at the instigation of the Jewish High Priests, and the sentence confirmed by his appointed procurator Pontius Pilate. Some traditions say that she managed to receive a death sentence for the high priests Anna and Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. This seems a bit unlikely and other sources like that of the 4th century historian Eusebius say that Pilate was exiled probably to Gaul where he took his own life.

Mary is said to have remained in Italy and helped Paul when he arrived. She remained two more years after Paul had departed after his first court judgement. Although we often speak of Paul as the founder of the Roman Church, the Christian faith was already being preached there before his arrival. Neither Paul nor Peter is the founder. Mary was there long before Peter or Paul and even though she is not officially recognized as the founder of the Roman Church she certainly played an important role in preparing the ground for Paul to take over. Paul acknowledges this when he says in his Epistle to the Romans, “Greet Mary, who bestowed much labour upon us.” (Romans 16:6)
From Italy Mary is said to have preached also in France before returning to Jerusalem. Some traditions have her visiting Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria and Pamphylia before returning to Jerusalem. At Jerusalem she stayed a short while with the Mother of God until her death. From Jerusalem she was persecuted by the Jews and was exiled to Marseilles together with the Apostle Maximus of the seventy apostles. Here it is said that she converted the whole of Provence and for many centuries there existed a cult religion of Mary Magdalene.
Mary finished her life in Ephesus near to St. John the Evangelist living in a cave where she finished her earthly life and was buried. Her relics were translated to Constantinople in 890 AD and placed in the monastery Church of St Lazarus. In the era of the Crusader campaigns some of her relics were transferred to Italy and placed at Rome under the altar of the Lateran Cathedral. Part of the relics of Mary Magdalene are also said to be in Provence, France near Marseilles, where over them at the foot of a steep mountain a splendid church is built in her honour. I should also mention that on the Holy Mountain Athos in the monastery of Simonopetra is kept an incorrupt female hand which for centuries has of its own been preserved at a natural physical temperature of a living body. By Tradition this hand belongs to Mary Magdalene who with the many miracles surrounding the hand is considered as a second founder of the monastery. In 1747 the hand was stolen by pirates, but was purchased back in 1765 by the Abbot of the monastery in Tripoli Libya. Unfortunately the Monastery’s records were burnt in the big fire of 1891 so we don’t have any more details concerning the history of the hand. St. Mary Magdalene is celebrated by the Church on 22nd July which is her main feast and on 4th May the Translation of her relics.
Before we finish for today I think something should be said concerning the scandalous and blasphemous books and films that have appeared in recent years. Books like ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” “The Da Vinci Code”, the film by the same name and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. In these books and films Mary Magdalene is portrayed as being Jesus’ wife and that together they had children. The root of these lies is to be found in the Gnostic writings of the second and third century especially the writing known as “the gospel of St. Phillip” which suggests that Mary and Jesus had a special relationship. The Papyrus found in Egypt in 1945 is incomplete with many holes in it and guesses were made at what might have been the missing words. The sentence made up by purely guesswork reads “And the companion of the saviour was Mary Magdalene. Christ loved Mary more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.”
Based on this Gnostic gospel and the cult religions surrounding Mary Magdalene in Southern France, the authors of the book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, put forward a hypothesis that the historical Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had one or more children, and that those children or their descendants emigrated to what is now southern France. Once there, they intermarried with the noble families that would eventually become the Merovingian dynasty, whose special claim to the throne of France is championed today by a secret society called the Priory of Sion. They concluded that the legendary Holy Grail is simultaneously the womb of St. Mary Magdalene and the sacred royal bloodline she gave birth to.
The film “The Last Temptation” is based on the same source and depicts Jesus on the Cross being given a choice not to die but to marry Mary and have children to which he accepts but then in old age he repents of this decision and asks God to let him die on the Cross as he was originally supposed to do.
Dan Brown, the author of the “Da Vinci Code” novel again has used as the source of his blasphemous book the Gnostic writings and the beliefs concerning the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene mentioned in the book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”
All these writings are just attacks on the Bible and its authority. They attack the true identity of Christ, the true identity of Mary and the true identity of man’s salvation. In his book, Dan Brown writes that the bible is the product of man and not of God. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times and it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a perfect version of the book. He claims that Constantine the Great commissioned and financed a new bible which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human straits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike. The earlier gospels were then outlawed, gathered up and burned. He further argues that more than 80 gospels were potential candidates for the New Testament, but only Matthew, Mark Luke and John were chosen for purely political reasons at the time of Constantine and indicates that the true gospels have recently been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is where his argument crumbles because from the 1,000 or so documents found at Qumran near the Dead Sea the only religious documents found were from the Old Testament and the messiah prophesied in these Old Testament texts totally support the Jesus portrayed in the canonical gospels.
In the Old Testament found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are 125 prophecies pointing to the coming of the Messiah. The probability that all these prophecies being fulfilled in just one person is incalculable: it would be in the many billions and trillions to 1. The Dead Sea scrolls therefore reinforce the fact that the Old Testament has not been changed or tampered with, and that the Jesus Christ found in the canonical gospels goes hand in hand with the prophecies and writings of the Old Testament, unlike the Jesus portrayed in the Gnostic gospels. His argument that Constantine changed the New Testament is also unfounded. Firstly there were no gospels found among the Dead Sea Scrolls as Dan Brown falsely stated. Secondly one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament known as the Rylands Papyrus p52 was found in Egypt and is dated to about 110AD more than 200 years before the birth of Constantine. There is also the Bodmer Papyrus dated to 200AD which contains text from the New Testament and many more discoveries of New Testament findings that are identical to today’s New Testament all dating before the time of Constantine’s rule. Constantine therefore did not and could not have created the New Testament or change any part of it.
The Gnostic gospels which were found in different times and places were not placed in the bible because they contradicted the Old Testament. Gnosticism refers to a religious movement consisting of beliefs generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god. The Old Testament contradicts this because it states that God is perfect and people are not trapped on earth. Dan Brown based his novel on the Gnostic beliefs and writings. It was the gospels from these Gnostic writings that Dan Brown accused were left out by Constantine. But they were left out because they contradict the Old Testament and because they teach that the God of the Old Testament was evil and that the serpent was good. The Gnostics also created a goddess named Sophia who they worshipped as more noble and wise than Jesus Christ. They were fascinated with the mother principle in the universe.
I mentioned all these facts because these ideas and beliefs has been around for centuries and we can be sure that they will be cropping up again and again in new books and new films and although they are scandalous to the many millions of Christians throughout the world, if we learn to ignore them then they might eventually go away. What has happened in the past is that the Hierarchs of the Churches rose up with cries of excommunication and forbidding the faithful to read or see these films. The results from all this screaming and shouting actually produced the opposite effect. The majority of these works are just mediocre, which under normal circumstances would have passed by unnoticed by most people, but because of all the noise generated by the Christian Churches, it awakened people’s interest and curiosity to see what all the fuss was about. The end result was that more people than would have bought the books and saw the films and the producers of these works made a fortune. I am not saying that we should completely ignore such blasphemous works and not say anything. But instead of rising up in anger it would be better to soberly instruct and educate the faithful on the origins of these works so that they can sieve out for themselves the truths from the lies.