It is well known to all that the Orthodox Church has "fathers." We are constantly reminded of their presence and power. For example, every in the Orthodox Church ends with the familiar prayer, "Through the prayers of our holy fathers…"
Much less well known is the fact that our church also has "mothers." Reminders of their existence and influence come very few and far between. Our "mothers" do not appear in the liturgical petitions of the Divine Liturgy. Yet Orthodoxy has thousands of "mothers." They are the women saints, women whose names are inscribed on almost every single day of our church calendar. With the notable exception of the Theotokos and a handful of major figures, however, our women saints are generally ignored.
More glorious and powerful than all the angels and saints, Mary is, of course, the first "mother" of the Orthodox Church. Her presbeia (intercession) forms a dominant theme in countless hymns and prayers in which Orthodox Christians sing Mary's praises and appeal to her maternal love for help and protection.
In addition to the Theotokos, the church also has many other noble "mothers." The four evangelists record the discipleship of loyal women like Saints Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary of Bethany and the Myrophoroi. According to the Gospels, women were at the Cradle and at the Cross.
Likewise, the Book of Acts and the Epistles furnish evidence of women's activities and leadership in the early church. They served as founders of churches, as deacons, apostles, teachers, preachers and prophets. Thus, our church commemorates among others, St Hermione, healer and prophet; Saints Thekla, Apphia, Jounia, Priscilla, Mariamne and Photeine, apostles who spread the word of Christ in a pagan world; Saints Olympia and Susanna, deacons in Constantinople and Palestine, respectively.
Martyrs constitute the largest category of holy "mothers." By their sacrificial deaths these theophoroi (godbearing) women insured life for the church. Along with hundreds of their sisters, the Great Martyrs Katherine, Barbara, Marina, Eirene, Christine and Euphemia "imitated the death of Christ" and paid blood tribute to their church. From the first persecutions of Christians and in every crisis women have defended the Orthodox faith with their lives; Saints Anna, Theodosia, Maria and Anthousa in the religious struggles of Byzantium during the eighth and ninth centuries; Saints Philothei, Chryse, Kyranna, Akylina and Argyre during the four hundred years of Turkish rule in Greece.
Like the "fathers," the "mothers" enjoy rights of intercession in heaven. With confidence, therefore, Orthodox faithful may address prayers and petitions to female saints, our "mothers." Likewise, many "mothers" also possess miraculous, powers and are distinguished as thaumatourgoi (miracle-workers). To mention a few examples, Saints Zenais, Sophia, Asklepias, Athanasia, Elizabeth, Potamia, and Sebastiane are called thaumatourgoi. The synaxaria recount their many miracles.
The existence and significance of "mothers" in the church should surprise no one. Christ not only welcomed women to equal discipleship, He also commissioned a female disciple, Mary Magdalene, to be the first apostle, the first to proclaimthe Resurrection. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit baptized with fire the women and the men.
In fidelity to Christ's teaching and praxis, the primitive Christian Church recognized no inequalities or distinctions on the basis of national origin, of social condition, or of sex. The Church governed itself according to the baptismal creed quoted in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus."
It seems, therefore, that there is no credible tradition or theological reason for excluding our "mothers" from liturgical prayers. Why can't we pray, for example, "Through the prayers of our holy fathers and mothers, Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy and save us."
St. Mary of Palestine
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