Holy Friday in the Orthodox Church is, second only to the Paschal Vigil, one of the most beautiful days of the Eastern Orthodox church year. The Noble Joseph and the Lamentations remain among my favorite hymns. They are so beautiful, and I miss them enough, that I admit to lurking a bit on the interwebs so I can taste a little bit of this rich liturgical feast.
But always, without fail, there comes a point in one of my favorite hymns that my joy at hearing (and singing with) such familiar melodies turns to tears. To be honest, I don’t really know if the grief I feel while watching these services from afar is because miss it, or because I am reminded of how exiled I felt/was among my own people as I watch men bear the body of Christ, lay him in a tomb, and stand vigil, a job that according to scripture, was done primarily by women.
Take for instance, this gorgeous slavonic rendition of The Noble Joseph:
The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped It in fine linen and anointed It with spices, and placed It in a new tomb (Troparion of Holy Saturday).
Not only does the hymn reference only the male Joseph, even though anointing the dead was often the job of women, but the liturgical enactment is, with very rare exceptions, by men alone.
I posted some of the above on Facebook to express the tension and grief I always feel when I am reminded of my Eastern Orthodox roots. To my surprise, a number of Orthodox friends and acquaintances commented (apparently, the Facebook fast, if there was one, is over for many of them!). Comments ran the gamut of “this is a male monastery” (correct, Jordanville is the location of a male monastery) to a number of poignant memories of the few times when they, or their daughters, were able to participate in this particular celebration.
What struck me is how meaningful, and how grateful, all were for these fleeting opportunities. This joy isn’t just a reflection of being allowed to do something generally forbidden, but the joy of fully entering into the celebration of crucifixion and resurrection. I am genuinely glad for all these moments, and that some women so perfectly fit the roles they can embody (well-trained female chanters are a growing phenomenon), and that they do not feel marginalized.
Yet each of these remain occasional exceptions: a generous priest willing to allow teenage girls to help on this one day, a pandemic which limits the number of (male) bodies available to chant, a lack of (male) bodies to do this or that function, a female monastery (which still requires a male priest). Indeed, the reality of a place like Jordanville, or Athos, or …. so MANY Orthodox monasteries and churches, is that women are simply NOT essential to Orthodox liturgical life, but men ARE.
Even those moments of participation can emphasize deeply problematic stereotypes or theological assertions about bodies. Dr. Valerie Karras reminded us that:
“Some parishes have “myrrhbearers” as part of the procession, but the ones I know of are almost always teenagers or young girls, normally dressed in white, so it gets wrapped up (probably unconsciously) with ideas of virginal purity. I think back to the medieval/Byzantine order of myrrhbearers (μυροφόροι) in the Church of Jerusalem and how they helped the patriarch and other clergy prepare the tomb, chanted hymns, censed the patriarch, and participated in the procession with the other clergy. How marginalized women have become in our Holy Week services compared to a millennium ago!”
We should rejoice and be glad for the opportunities women have to participate. But that rejoicing should be framed along the lines of the woman who reminded Jesus that even the dogs got the crumbs. Her point is that her people were not dogs, and that no one had to be content with crumbs because there is enough of God to go around. Perhaps Jesus was leading her to this conclusion, or perhaps a woman, as so often happens in the gospels, pointed out his limited theological vision. Either way, Jesus seemed quite willing in his ministry to see God everywhere, in all things, and in all people.
So our gratefulness and gladness at being able to serve cannot also displace the reality that women (and gays, trans, queer) remain excluded. Exceptions, and personal contentment, can’t blind us to the overall reality of how deeply and unnecessarily sexist, are our beloved rituals and liturgies. Being content or happy with the small slice we may be given does not also require that we turn our eyes away from the grief others feel at the restrictions imposed on them by a church that is supposed to free us to use our gifts in all their unique diversity.
I recognize that change is happening. I am glad change is happening. But the point is that the inclusion of women in the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Churches remains an exception, and they have to fight for what little is made available. That fight is hard, emotionally draining, and puts a strain on their relationships with their kin in Christ.
Worst is that we are taught to be grateful for what little we are given. Like dogs eating crumbs.
The only reason change is happening is because women, like me or Teva Regule or Valerie Karras or Verna Harrison or Ashley Purpura or Carrie Frederick Frost or Spyridoula Denia Athanasopoulou-kypriou or Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi or Dee Jaquet or the organizations such as The Phoebe Center for the Deaconess or the St. Nina Quarterly continually point out that the various forms of sexism in the church are wrong (and we do it without always agreeing with one another regarding what should change). Ironically, the work of every one of these women will need to be acknowledged and articulated by men (who may or may not credit these women for their expertise and insight), and then implemented by men, before any change will happen.
Honestly, I just wish more women would stop being grateful for crumbs and insist on sitting at the table where God has invited them to be.
It is hard though, because we are all capable of loving something beautiful that is also abusive. And sometimes it is easier to deny its destructive power and just see the parts we love, which are truly worthy of being loved.
Women shouldn’t have to fight their church to use their God-given gifts. The church is supposed to help us use our gifts, not deny them, ignore them, or shame us for wanting to use them. I know this, in part because I was ignored, shamed, or shunted aside as a way to dismiss my gifts. I also know this because an essential part of my ministry as a priest is to recognize the gifts of others, encourage them, and provide a space for them to grow so that the community of God really exists “for the life of the world.”
Over the last three years, I have never once stood at the Eucharistic table, hands raised, chanting the prayers, and wondered, “can my body do this?” Not once. Before I was ordained, I thought I would struggle, I would wonder.
But not once has it occurred to me to even wonder if my body is a problem. In that moment, there is no room for such a ridiculous and inane thought to take up space. When I stand at the altar table, it is the presence of God in the Holy Spirit who fills the moment, and gives me joy. We are all gathered together not to celebrate sacrifice and suffering (which the church imposes far too frequently) but the joy of resurrection, of all God’s saving work in all creation.
Such a creation-transforming reality leaves no room for even a fleeting bit of anxiety that perhaps destructively-realized theology embedded in my liturgical past might have a point. As my friend Sophia commented, “The sexism is what drove me out of the Orthodox Church, but the spirituality remains embedded.” And that spirituality is, for me, most present in the joyful celebration of the Eucharist, the medicine of immortality, the tasting and seeing that the goodness of God seeps into all matter, and raises all of it from the grave.
My body is certainly not a block, and for many who have been told over and over again that their bodies are the problem, my female body at the altar is a gift that allows them to enter a church and know God welcomes all of us.
On this day, where in the Christian East Christ descends to the dead, and raises Adam and Eve as a representation of raising all people, male, female, and all those who traverse the poles of variously sexed/gendered creation, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the gates that lay broken at his feet were not just those of Hades, but all the barriers which unnecessarily restrict or deny the offering of our beautiful, unique, and gifted bodies where they are best suited to nurture the flourishing of all creation?