During the 50 days after Easter the Orthodox Church celebrates some exceptional women saints. They are the myrrhophoroi, the Samaritan Woman and the woman with the issue of blood. Their names are inscribed on our calendars. Our service books contain numerous hymns in their honor. The Pentekostarion provides hundreds of examples. And for more than a thousand years theologians and hierarchs wrote and delivered sermons and encomia to these holy women of faith. Yet we pay little or no attention to them.
According to liturgical traditions, on the third Sunday of Easter the myrrhophoroi - among them Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee - are honored collectively. All four gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 15, Luke 24, John 20) testify that these faithful women disciples are the first witnesses of the Resurrection, the first to see the Risen Lord, and the first to proclaim the good news (evangelion) that Christ had truly risen from the dead as he foretold.
It is a striking and significant fact that Christianity's basic premise, the Resurrection, depends exclusively on the word of women. The first Christos Anesti came from the lips of the myrrh-bearing women. Thus, these mathetriai [women disciples] are the first evangelists and apostles. Since the [male] disciples, the eleven of the inner circle, had fled and hidden, they learned the evangelion first from the women. These words of an ancient hymn make it clear what the succession is: "Learning from the angel the bright message (kerygma) of the resurrection, the women disciples (mathetriai) of the Lord said to the male apostles, 'Death has been defeated; Christ who is God has risen.'"
Another woman of faith is celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Easter. She is the Samaritan Woman, with whom Christ conversed one hot noon by the Well of Jacob. It is the longest conversation recorded of Jesus. The fourth chapter of John tells the remarkable story of her encounter with Jesus. When the male disciples saw their teacher talking to the foreign woman, they were shocked. The impropriety was too much for their conventional views.
Jesus, however, did not share their prejudices. He did not despise the woman because of her sex, life-style, and religion. Rather, he discussed theology with her, instructing her to worship God in spirit and truth. And to her, not to the male disciples, he revealed for the first time that he was the Messiah, whom the prophets of Israel had prophesied.
The Samaritan Woman heard these startling words and at once believed him. Then she ran to tell the good news to the people of her town. So strong was her faith (pistis) that they also believed. She, too, was a first apostle. Later, the "Faithful Samaritan Woman" became the subject of many Byzantine hymns and sermons.
From the synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:20-26, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:42-48) comes the story of another woman who had faith. She is the unfortunate woman whom society and culture shunned and shamed because of a blood taboo. The Orthodox Church commemorates her on the sixth Wednesday of Easter and as St. Veronike on July 12th. She was cured of her illness and liberated from shame when she healed herself by touching the hem of Jesus' garment.
In a hymn composed by St. Romanos the Melodos in the sixth century, Christ tells the woman that the healing was not his doing, that her pistis (faith) had worked the miracle. Nevertheless, this story demonstrates Jesus' attitude towards rituals, taboos, and traditions which humiliated and discriminated against women. Regardless of what his tradition had taught about blood and "unclean" women, Jesus rejected the notion. One wonders why it has lasted to this day in the church.
Through the experiences of the myrhophoroi, the Samaritan Woman and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, the church seeks to illustrate the meaning of the Resurrection, of Easter with its message of life, joy and hope. Strong, confident, intelligent, and brave women, these female saints welcomed the advent of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus. Unafraid, in contrast to the male disciples, the myrrhophoroi went to the tomb, learned that Christ had trampled on death, and became the first bearers of the Christian Gospel. The Samaritan Woman conversed with Jesus, discovered that the Messiah had come, and announced him to the world. To recover health and entrance into society and culture, the outcast woman defied conventions, overcame fear, approached Christ and found healing through her faith.
At the critical centre of each story stands Jesus. It was he who made it possible for these women to experience joy and liberation. It happened because he accepted them as persons, and valued each of them as human beings created in God's image. He never mapped out a "feminine" sphere for them. He never forced them into patriarchal stereotypes. The relationship of these female saints with the founder of Christianity provides thoughts for reflection in this after-Easter period.
This article was adapted from the book Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy (Minneapolis, Minn.: Light and Life Publishing, 1987) with permission of the author.