So, Tara and I had a conversation the other night (hi, Tara!) about attending Divine Liturgy with our daughters. She told me that her boys look so forward to going because they love to serve at the altar, while her daughters, who obviously do not, don’t seem to share that same enthusiasm.
This is a common discussion among mothers these days, especially with the introduction of female altar servers in some Latin Catholic Churches. Our girls have seen this and to be honest, they find it strange as they have no idea why a woman would want to do this. It’s a foreign idea to them. They see their brothers' service at the altar as a kind of apprenticeship of sorts to the clergy in the event that the boys may find they have a desire for the priesthood, Of course, they clearly understand that the priesthood is not for them. Many of my Roman Catholic friends tell me that the primary reason for allowing or even encouraging their daughters to serve at the altar is so that they will feel included in the service, and happy to attend.
Can you believe that these poor young ladies don't feel included in the service?
I can tell you when I was a girl at our small mission parish, my mom taught us that we were an integral part of the upkeep of the church. We felt it keenly; we seemed to be always there doing something! There are so many ways to include them! I wonder if these mothers have lost sight of all the necessary services that their daughters could, and should, render to the Church! " My goodness", I told Tara, "let's leave the boys something to do!"...and we laughed!
Tara wondered if I would be willing to explore this topic a bit here and discuss the fact that women, especially our young women, have a very special place in the Church, so much so that they need not feel the desire to ever usurp a role that was not designed or intended for them. Authentic feminine nature is so very necessary to complete the Body of Christ, which is the Church, just as Eve was necessary to complete the body of Adam! We need to look no further than the example set for us by the women disciples during the time of Christ who ministered to his needs and the needs of the apostles. They were an integral part of His ministry, yet clearly they were not meant to pursue the priesthood, but rather they followed the example of His Blessed Mother by providing the men who would become His priests with care and support while they proclaimed God's word.
Exploring Authentic Femininity
When my own girls were little they belonged to a Little Flowers Girls Club which we formed from our homeschool group. Once all the lessons were completed, our girls, who got along splendidly, wanted to stay together as a group but needed something further to study. This forced me to write some original lesson plans for them. We called the group, the Myrrhbearers and its primary theme was authentic femininity within the Church and its purpose was to introduce the girls to the services that females could, and should, render to the Church. Each month we explored a different topic of interest to Eastern Christian homemakers and added material to our own home-keeper's manual. Pertinent scripture passages were provided, upon which to meditate during the month, and instructions are given so that the activities could be repeated at home as desired. Icons for our individual home altars, those which were pertinent to each lesson, were provided and discussed so that the girls could begin to prepare and tend to their own family icon corner, making it a dynamic aspect of their family’s prayer-life in the home and over which the girls were encouraged to assume responsibility.
We took the actions of the Theotokos and the Myrrhbearing women as our examples.
For instance, the Blessed Virgin was known to have made beautiful seamless garments for her Son and was said to have taken in hand sewing in order to help provide for the Child Jesus. This encouraged the girls to learn more about the various vestments and altar cloths used at the Divine Liturgy and other services.
We learned about the making and the upkeep of these items and where it was possible, the girls began to take an active part in maintaining the church linens. They made beeswax candles, sacramentals like chotki and scapulars, and learned the folk traditions like pysanky and embroidery, and how to cook the traditional Christmas Eve Holy Supper and the Easter Pascha Basket. These lessons proved to add confidence to their skill set for maintaining the traditions of our ethnic culture as well.
We know that Mary of Bethany sat at His feet and listened to His heartfelt message while Martha cooked meals for Him and for His disciples. By this example, the girls took part in providing food for the poor who would often come to the door of the church rectory looking for food. They made pretty, layered jars of bean soup ingredients for Father to hand out to them and organized a canned food drive in the fall. In addition to this the girls had a lesson in the making of phosphora, the special bread used for consecration during the Divine Liturgy so that they would be able to help the priest by providing him with the bread if he desired assistance in that way. Imagine their joy at being able to provide such a gift to the Church for the Liturgy on a given Sunday!
Johanna Chuza and Susannah followed and cared for Christ while he roamed around preaching, and Mary Magdalen anointed His tired feet with oil to thank Him for the forgiveness of her sins. The girls brainstormed ways that they could be of service to the priests of their individual parishes by providing them with food, cleaning the rectory and the Church, and helping at all the parish events and fundraisers as a group,
Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic, tells us that Veronica ran an inn for travelers and provided the disciples with refreshment and lodging and that she also provided the tablewear for the Last Supper. By this example, the girls could also choose to take on the task of organizing the list of contributors of food at the church coffee hour or church school meetings. They could also greet elderly parishioners in the parking lot on Sunday mornings and escort them from their cars into the church.
At the crucifixion, these holy women who became our patrons were the followers who remained to witness Jesus' death and console His mother. As women of the parish we are called to bear witness to the life of Christ as it appears in the life of the parish as a whole.
We are called to pray together, lead prayer groups in the home, care for the children and the elderly of the parish, to sing in the choir, and to work as a group for the good of the parish.
We are called upon to attend the services simply to pray for each other, to tend to the very fabric of the congregation at its most basic level and thereby laying the foundation for the altar at which the men, as priests, are called to serve.
We must remember that the Theotokos is present in the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost for a very important reason. The Church survives today because of the service and instruction of the priesthood, AND because of the service and instruction of women, as mothers, as nurturers, as imitators Our Blessed Mother.
We must also keep in mind that, In return for their service, the myrrh bearers were granted by God to be the first ones permitted to bear witness to His resurrection. What a gift! To many, the Myrrhbearers' role in the plan of salvation may look mundane and ordinary on the surface, much like the water in the stone jars at the wedding at Cana, but by offering those services to Christ with love and diligence, Christ has turned their small acts of lovingkindness into the finest wine. With these women as our example, we as women-believers are called to do exactly the same.
Our Myrrhbearers group became a vibrant little organization for young ladies who desired to grow in their faith and service to the Church. While participating in the monthly activities, they prepared themselves to become mothers and teachers of the next generation of the faithful. These lessons encouraged authentically feminine service to the Church and gave the students the tools and skills they needed to become enthusiastic and knowledgable participants in the Church community. By exploring the important duties and activities that holy women should assume within their individual domestic churches, we can be assured that the Universal Church will not only continue but thrive.