Third Sunday of Pascha
Sermon on the Myrrh-bearing Women, Mother's Day, womanhood, and motherhood in the Church
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is risen!
Every so often today’s feast of the myrrh-bearing women and Mother’s Day coincide. Today happens to be that day. And so, I would like to talk today about our women.
Traditional Christian Churches, such as the Orthodox Christian Church, tend to be criticized for being, so called, misogynistic. Meaning, that we have a strong prejudice against women. And the main evidence for such prejudice, the critics claim, is our insistence that only men can be ordained to the priesthood.
Now, I do not fully know why Jesus did not change the custom of only male priesthood. In the ancient Israel, just like in our Church today, only men could become priests. The Lord did challenge and change other aspects of religious and secular life, but not the priesthood.
For example, He challenged the social status of women in His day. In the first century, women had about as many rights as slaves, which basically meant that they had none. Yet, already in the Gospel accounts, we see Christ treat and interact with women as equal to men. And women are equal to men not because they can do the same things equally, because they can’t.
Men, in general and on average, are stronger than women, but only women know what kind of strength it takes to give birth. Men could never do it. Women and men are equal, however, because both are human beings, created in the image of God.
Beginning with Jesus and continuing in the early Church, we see the social status of women change, as they are not only seen as equal members of the Church along with men, but they also take on responsibilities equally with men. Again, not that they were doing the same things, but that their contributions were seen as equally valuable to the existence of the community.
Yet, neither the Lord, nor His disciples ever introduce female priesthood, even though He could have if He wanted to. This tradition remains unchanged.
The criticism of misogyny against the Church misses another critical point – being in the altar is not all that there is to serving God and to salvation. And not even all men can become priests. For example, soldiers who kill on the battlefield can’t become priests; anyone who commits a murder also; men who have been married more than once are prohibited from priesthood; those who have some physical infirmity, like even missing a finger or a toe, might be excluded from priesthood.
And it’s not as if those who are ordained are the best of the rest. Being a priest myself and knowing a few priests, I can make a case that the worst of the rest are ordained…but that’s a topic for another time.
So today I would like to talk about women, as I said. And more specifically, about the role of the women in the Orthodox Christian Church, because that role is very important.
And I will do this through the lens of the myrrh-bearing women we celebrate today, because they set an example and embody womanhood. And I will also do this through the lens of motherhood, because even if a woman does not give birth physically, she still is a mother, or rather, she has a potential to become a mother.
One of our former bishops once, jokingly, asked, “Why did the Lord reveal Himself first to the women after the Resurrection, and ask them to tell the apostles? Because,” the bishop said, “He knew that the women will talk, unlike the men.”
Well, I think our former bishop was wrong, joke or not. The risen Lord revealed Himself first to the women because they, and not His male disciples, were the most loyal and compassionate followers.
And in the command given by an angel at the empty tomb, “Go, and tell His disciples…” was revealed an important role that women will play in the life of the Christian Church forever – the nurturers of the faith.
We have apostles in the Church because we have myrrh-bearing women, who told them the good news of Christ’s resurrection. It’s not for nothing that the Myrrh-bearers are called the apostles to the apostles. The women taught the men, who would in turn teach the rest of the world, the main message of the Gospel – that Christ is risen, trampling down Death by death and liberating us from the slavery to sin and death. This did not happen by accident, it happened exactly the way God intended for it to happen. It always had to be women who first proclaim this message.
The Myrrh-bearers embody womanhood in their courage, love, and compassion. The women were at the foot of the Cross when their Lord was crucified and died, while the men scattered. The women bought spices and expensive oil to anoint the body of Jesus, and went to His tomb that was guarded by soldiers who would never let them through and covered by the stone which they would never be able to move, while the men were hiding in a room.
This kind of courage, love, and compassion were required to proclaim the most wonderful news ever proclaimed. And this kind of courage, love, and compassion are required to pass down the Christian faith and culture. Like the apostles, we inherit our faith and culture from women, from our mothers. Before the faith becomes apostolic, it is in some sense maternal.
The myrrh-bearing women were the early mothers of the church because they taught the apostles. And even to this day, the reason we have bishops, priests, and deacons is because women gave birth to them and raised them and passed down the faith to them.
In most cases, it’s the mother who first introduces the child to Christ. It’s the mother who first prays with the child during feeding or changing the diapers or rocking the baby to sleep. Yes, sometimes the mother’s praying so that she would not lose her mind from being exhausted and over-worked.
The mother teaches the child the apostolic faith. This faith cannot be handed to down from generation to generation unless there are myrrh-bearing women in each family and community.
And this brings me to the role of the women in the Church through the lens of motherhood.
The Church is a household and each household needs a mother. A mother is someone who brings life into the world. This is not limited to physical, biological motherhood, but also includes spiritual motherhood. In general, women, through motherhood, produce life instead of chaos.
So each woman, either through giving birth or by becoming a spiritual mother, a friend, a mentor brings life into the world and passes down the apostolic faith to that life.
Each family and each community needs mothers, obviously, both spiritual and biological, because they are the channel through which courage, love, compassion, joy, peace, and life come into that family and community.
There are many practical ways of bringing life into the community – providing hospitality, feeding, making things with hands, organizing activities; mentoring younger women, teaching professional and life skills. All of these things bring life into the family and community, and make it a place that is characterized by courage, love, compassion, and joy.
The women may not be ordained into priesthood, but they provide the necessary balance to each family, community, and the whole world. Because if we have too much masculinity, then we fall into tyranny and lack of love. And tyranny is the opposite of courage. It is cowardice.
The myrrh-bearing women, personifying womanhood in their courage, love, and compassion, became the first mothers of the Church, teaching the apostles about Christ’s Resurrection. And to this day, the Church stands and the same message is passed down from generation to generation through our women, our mothers, both biological and spiritual.
So let us give thanks today for all the women in our lives because without them we would not be here.
Christ is risen!