Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
OUR SOCIETY IS VERY DIFFERENT from the first-century world in which the Church began. Older people relied on their families to care for them; there were no social programs to assist them. Widowed women were required to rely on their sons or other male relative for support. A woman on her own had few ways to support herself besides selling herself into slavery or becoming a prostitute.

Rulers in Israel were enjoined to support the widows who had no family to care for them. The local synagogues became their arm in assuring the support of these women. The first Christians in Jerusalem, organized along similar lines, undertook the same responsibility in their communities. In the Epistle of James we see how important this was in the apostolic Church: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Acts 6 tells how the order of deacons was established in part to assure proper care for all the widows in the care of the Church. We also find that women like the Tabitha, whose death and resuscitation was recorded in Acts 9, were instrumental in caring for these widows. She may have been a widow herself as no family members are mentioned in the report. Rather it was the widows of the community who were her principal mourners: “This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did… And all the widows stood by him [Peter] weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:36, 39).

Dorcas represents something new in the condition of widows. In the Christian community they not only received assistance but, as disciples of Christ, they gave it as well. As persons in need they could be given support by the Church, but as Christians themselves they too were called to imitate Christ by caring for His poor.

The “Order” of Widows

Within a short time the Church began organizing formal groups of widows as part of its orders of ministry. St Paul – who believed that all Christian women should be adorned, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10) – provided guidelines for such an order. After listing the qualities needed for bishops and deacons, he went on to say: “Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. And these things command, that they may be blameless. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

“Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work (1 Timothy 5:3-10).

The order of widows was part of the Syrian Church for several centuries. The chief work of widows in this order was to pray for the Church, particularly for their benefactors. In some places these widows visited the sick or engaged in the instruction of younger women. In other places, however, according to the third-century book of Church order called the Didaskalia, “there are some indeed who profess themselves widows, but do not works worthy of their name” (iii, 10).

In any case, by the fourth century the order of widows declined while another women’s order thrived: the order of deaconesses.

Deaconesses in the Church

When we hear the term “deacon” we think of the sacred minister in our own day with his extensive role in the Liturgy In fact, diakonos is simply the Greek word for a servant such as a waiter or messenger. In the early Church the deacon’s first role was that described in Acts 6: distributing food to the poor, leaving the apostles free to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

St Paul uses the same term to refer to certain women in his communities such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1), whom he says has been a help to many. Writing to the Philippians he mentions two women, Euodia and Syntyche, and asks his readers to help these women “who labored with me in the gospel” (Philippians 4:2). We do not know what kind of help these women provided – perhaps financial – as St Paul’s helpers.

In ad 112 the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan concerning Christians in his province, Bithynia. He had questioned two ministrae (“female slaves” or “maidservants”) called deaconesses, he wrote, but does not describe their role in the community.

We first see specific roles of deaconesses in the third-century Syrian book of Church order, the Didaskalia. Their duties include:

Visiting Women in Their Homes –“There are houses to which you cannot send a deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but may send a deaconess… to visit those who are sick, and to minister to their needs, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness;”

Assisting in Baptisms of Women – “Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing… it is not fitting that women should be seen by men.” The Fourth-century Syrian book of Church order, the Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, adds “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important.”

Keeping Order in the Women’s Section of the Church – “Let the Porters stand at the entries of the men, and observe them. Let the Deaconesses also stand at those of the women, like ship-men. If a poor man, one of a low family, or a stranger come upon you, whether he be old or young, and there be no place, the Deacon shall find a place even for these… Let the Deaconess do the same thing for those women that come, whether poor or rich… Moreover, let both the Deacons and the Deaconesses be ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister and serve” (Apostolic Constitutions II, 57, 58).

The Didaskalia directs the faithful to esteem the bishop as they would God, the presbyters as the apostles, the deacons as Christ and the deaconesses as the Holy Spirit. According to this same document, deaconesses were ordained by the bishop in a rite similar to but not identical with the ordination of deacons. The text we have for this rite come from the eighth century.

The roles which deaconesses played, particularly in the baptism of adult women, became less important over time. The order of deaconess eventually lapsed, except in some women’s monasteries, and their roles were assumed by priests’ wives, godmothers or nuns. The order was never formally abolished, however, and deaconesses may still be found in some Armenian and Greek convents.
 
“THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN!” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) When the author of these words wrote them back in the 3rd or 4th century BC, he never thought that they would become a stock phrase in the 3rd millennium AD, in a language that as yet did not exist. This and other Bible phrases like “A wolf in sheep's clothing” (Matthew 7:15) or “Money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) would be repeated by people who did not know they came from the Bible or the content in which they first were written. Another such phrase which has entered our vocabulary poses an interesting question. “God loves a cheerful giver” (1 Corinthians 9:7) is easily remembered and understood, but is it so easily lived? Many people know that they ought to do “good works” or be generous, but do it reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation. From our earliest years we learn not to be selfish, yet we often secretly resent having to make room for another at our table or donate to yet another cause. Yet the Scripture repeatedly calls on us to develop a cheerful liberality in our dealings with others. We seem to always be asked to give, but find ourselves resenting that we never really receive anything in turn. St John Chrysostom insists that we have receive inestimable blessings, gifts that we have not yet learned to cherish: “Who that is receiving a kingdom, has a long face? Who that is receiving pardon for his sins keeps frowning?” When we have the knowledge of God’s love for us firmly in our heart, then what to some may be a burden, to others is a joy. In his Epistle to the Romans St. Paul encourages us to use whatever gifts we may have been given to build up the Church. He also indicates the spirit in which these gifts should be exercised. “[Let] he who gives, [do so] with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” Those who share material goods are to do more than to share them; they are to be truly generous, to give from their heart. Those who lead are not simply to seek the honor of leader, but to do the often thankless work of a leader conscientiously. Those whose gift it is to minister to those in need are not to lord it over them or play the martyr but to be cheerful in their service. St John Chrysostom confronted the paradox of those who did good deeds without those deeds proceeding from an open heart. “Why do you complain that you have given alms? Why do you grieve at showing mercy, and lose the advantage of the good you have done? For if you serve grudgingly, you are not being merciful but cruel and inhuman. For if you grieve, how shall you be able to raise up the sorrowful … since nothing seems to men such a disgrace as to be receiving from others? By an exceedingly cheerful look …you show that you are receiving rather than giving, you will even cast down the receiver rather than raise him up. This is why he says, ‘He that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.’” The epistle continues in the same theme: love, but without pretense. Do not simply pretend to love. Give preference to others and do it fervently. Rejoice, be patient, be steadfast. The burden of being a Christian seems to grow with every line. How do we attain a heart so open to God and His world that these injunctions no longer seem a burden?

Opening Ourselves to Others

Often, like Charles Schultz’ character in Peanuts, we find ourselves saying, “I love mankind – its people I can’t stand.” Our abstract commitment to love is sorely tested when we come into contact with concrete examples of people who are hard to love. We retreat into seeing the world as “us” (those we like, whose company we enjoy) and “them” (everyone else). Is this the way life is meant to be lived? The call to reach out to one another, to love one another is a burden to many Christians. To do so runs counter to the egocentric bent of our fallen nature. It has been said that we continually try to reconstruct around us the world of our childhood, where we were at the center. Then we either pulled things and people toward ourselves in order to possess them or we pushed them away to keep them from dominating us. Thus we often find ourselves trying to organize the world around us: the family, the parish, the organizations to which we may belong. At the same time we may be indifferent to others who are not of our family, our clan, our nationality or our social class. We may prefer to keep out of sight those who do not contribute to our perceived identity. We can begin to deal with this aspect of our broken nature in ourselves by prayer. Repeatedly asking God to help us overcome our indifference to others will gradually produce an openness to those whom God has placed in our life. Reflecting on the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian can help us to see the ways in which our passions stand in the way of being openhearted in our dealings with others. While this prayer is used liturgically only during the Fast, it may be an important part of our private prayers at any time. O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk. We ask in this prayer to be delivered from the two extremes to which we may be prone. Sloth here represents the general feeling of indifference we may have to others and despondency points to joylessness that results when we try to live the Christian way of life. When we surrender to such feelings in the spiritual life we become like people suffering from depression who may go through the motions of living but find no joy in life itself. The opposite feelings, lust for power and idle talk, represent our attempts to control others rather than to serve them. We may try to “help” others by telling them how they should be living or directing how they should be dealing with their problems. We try to be “elders” when we are still spiritual children. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (σωφρόσυνη/sōphrosunē), humility, patience and love. The second phrase gives us the virtues which we need to correct our fallen inclinations. The first of them, chastity and humility, are the opposite of lust for power. Chastity refuses to dominate physically or sexually; humility refuses to dominate spiritually or psychologically. Disinterested love is possible only when we no longer are trying to depersonalize others by controlling them. The tendency to give up on ourselves and others is countered by patience and love (ἀγάπη/agape). A parent endures the “terrible twos” or the “traumatic teens” only with these qualities. A friend and especially a brother or sister in Christ needs the same character to bear the burdens of others. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For You are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen. It is so much easier, as the Lord noted, to see a speck in someone else’s eye than to see the log in our own. Rather seeing myself as a sinner and my brother as beloved of God makes the spaces that separate us from one another seem to vanish, bringing me closer to following Christ who the Lover of Mankind and the One who sees the absolute worth of each person as well. We see that He truly loves us to the very core of our being and that He loves “them” the same way.

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