Buying, wrapping, giving and receiving gifts mark the busy month of December. We pause, however, to celebrate once again a divine gift, God who appeared among us in the flesh to light our way to grace, life, love and peace on earth.
December also brings other gifts for Orthodox Christians to celebrate, 105 women saints. Of these, 80 martyred heroines remain nameless (Dec.13, 24). The names of 25 saints survive. I list them according to their place in the calendar: Barbara, Iouliane, Christodoule, Anna, Hannah, Bebaia, Loukia, Anthia, Susanna, Theophano, Zoe, Sophia, Thessalonike, Iouliane, Anastasia, Theodote, Eugenia, Basila, the Virgin Mary, Domna, Anysia, Theodora, Melania, Olympiodora and Neme.
98 of these women gave the last full measure of devotion and wear the crowns won by martyrdom. Two belong to the select group of "Great Martyrs." St . Barbara (Dec. 4), "taught by God," defied her pagan father to remain faithful to her conscience. She bravely accepted a martyr's death. St. Anastasia, Great Martyr and Healer of Wounds (Dec. 22) is the other. Defying her husband, she secretly visited persecuted and imprisoned Christians to give them medical aid. Betrayed by her angry husband to the authorities, Anastasia endured death by fire. Whether a mother like St. Anthia or a young woman like St. Loukia, all 98 women showed unsurpassed courage and loyalty.
The Blessed Martyr Susanna (Dec.15) had an extraordinary life. Born in Palestine, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Greek father, she became a Christian. For 20 years she lived as a monk named John in a monastery near Jerusalem. Church tradition records that "because of her many virtues she was made the archimandrite of the monastery." When it was discovered that Archimandrite John was a woman, the Bishop of Eleutheropolis ordained Susanna a deacon. Her miracles brought her great fame. When by her prayers she destroyed pagan idols, Deacon Susanna was put to death, another valiant woman martyr.
Among the seven women who are not martyrs one comes from the Old Testament, Hannah the Prophetess (Dec. 9), the mother of Samuel. On this day also occurs the feast of the Conception of St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos. When the prayers of these two barren women were answered, Hannah and Anna dedicated their children to God.
This group also includes two women "Miracle Workers." In the ninth century, St. Theophano, Thaumatourgos and Empress of Byzantium (Dec.16), scorned the glamor and glitz of imperial privileges. She chose instead a spiritual life of prayer to God and an active life of loving service (diakonia) to the least of her disadvantaged sisters and brothers. St. Sophia Thaumatourgos (Dec. 18) is honored with two verses:
Sophia loved the wisdom of God.
Therefore she received even the grace of miracles.
On Dec. 26 the Orthodox Church celebrates the most ancient Marian feast, the Synaxis of the Theotokos, the woman who made the gift of her flesh and womb to God so that God might come and live among us. Hence Mary's pre-eminent glory among the saints, her power and majesty in heaven.
Finally, December and the old year end with commemorations of two women ascetics, Hosia Theodora of Caesarea (Dec. 30) and Hosia Melania the Roman (Dec. 31). Aristocratic women of the eighth and fifth centuries respectively, Theodora and Melania achieved holiness as nuns, seeking and finding God through the denial of self.
Although they belonged to the sex thought to be the "weaker vessel" (I Peter 3:7), these 105 daughters of Eve proved to be strong generous donors to the church, bringing their rare gifts of love and sacrifice. Themselves precious gifts beyond the price of gold and even of nuclear weapons, the women saints of December deserve our homage this season of giving and receiving gifts.