by James Bushur
The Christian Church has always confessed the equality of man and woman; both are in the image of God, both essential to the generation of life, both subject to God’s Law, both objects of His love and recipients of His mercy.
But they are not interchangeable. Within the image of God, man and woman are diverse and unique. Thus, it is certainly good, right, and salutary for us to give praise to God, not only for our fathers in the faith, but also “for all the faithful women” (LSB 855). From the beginning, women have occupied an essential place in the narrative of our salvation. This essay presents a small sample of the faithful women through whom God has accomplished His good purpose.
St. Mary, mother of our Lord
Following the fall into sin, humanity is promised redemption through the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15); Abraham’s promised offspring, who would be a blessing to all nations, must come through Sarah (Gen. 17:15–16); and Isaiah’s prophecy concerns a virgin with child (Is. 7:14), a chosen bride (Is. 54:5–6; 62:5) and a fruitful mother (Is. 54:1f; 66:7–11). These are the three primary feminine vocations that define the Church. The Church is to be ever virgin in relation to evil and the world’s idolatry, ever bride in her relation to God and ever mother in relation to all nations bearing the children of God.
These three feminine vocations are all summed up in the Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord. In her simple surrender — “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) — Mary embodies in the most concrete way the very essence of true faith. She humbly receives all that comes upon her as the good gift of God. God’s punishment of Eve in the beginning concerns her motherly “sorrow” in childbearing. This sorrow entails more than physical pain; it involves the grief of surrendering her children to death. Thus, Mary is remembered not for what she does, but for what she bears. She bears Christ, but with Him, she also bears public shame and reproach in her community and finally bears the “sword” that would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35), the death of her Son. However, it is in Christ, that Mary’s sorrow — and indeed the sorrow of all women — is turned into joy (John 16:20–22). The resurrection of Jesus removes the curse of women so that, in her daughter Mary, Eve finally becomes the “mother of the living” (Gen. 3:20).
St. Perpetua, martyr of North Africa (203 AD)
In the early 200s AD, Septimus Severus, the emperor of Rome, passed laws that forbid anyone from converting to Christianity or Judaism. These laws were intended to limit the rapid growth of Christianity throughout the empire. Thus, early Christian catechumens (those being instructed in the faith and prepared for Baptism) were a primary target of Roman prosecution. In North Africa, a number of catechumens were taken into custody. Their teacher, a man named Saturus, voluntarily surrendered himself to Roman authorities in order to join his students in prison. One of his catechumens is a 22-year old woman of noble birth named Perpetua, newly married with an infant son. While in prison, Perpetua kept a diary of her ordeal up until her martyrdom in the arena. Her diary may indeed be the earliest writing we possess from the hand of a Christian woman.
The opening scene of her ordeal reveals all the evidence we need to appreciate her faithfulness. Her father, a pagan intent on persuading his daughter to repudiate her faith and return to her place in the family, did everything he could to appeal to her heart. Perpetua’s answer was truly profound. She pointed to a clay vase and asked her father if it can be called by any name other than what it is. Her father rightly recognized that it would not change the nature of the vase to call it a chalice. The sculptor made a vase and so it is called a vase. Perpetua, then, articulated this simple but devastating conclusion: “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian” (Passio, 3; Musurillo, 109).
For Perpetua, her Christian identity was not a matter of choice or the arbitrary inclination of her will. God made her a Christian and so she bore the Christian name. For this noble woman, she could not repudiate her Christianity any more than she could deny her gender or her humanity. Throughout her ordeal, Perpetua understood her Christian identity in familial or genealogical terms. Her true father is not the pagan man tempting her to deny Christ, but God himself, her Creator and Redeemer. Thus, immediately after her father departed, Perpetua was baptized as the child of God and proceeded to face her martyrdom as the bride of Christ ready for the wedding feast of eternal life.
St. Macrina, sister, mentor and servant (330—379 AD)
Macrina was the firstborn child of the most significant Christian family in ancient Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). Three of her younger brothers became highly influential bishops of the Church and two — Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa — became theological architects of the Trinitarian faith confessed at Nicea (325 AD) and perfected at Constantinople (381 AD). Yet as significant as her brothers were, Macrina arguably surpassed them all. We know of Macrina’s life from a letter written by Gregory of Nyssa following his sister’s death, entitled “The Life of Macrina.” This letter was written at the request of Olympias, a deaconess of the church at Constantinople, who urged Gregory to preserve Macrina’s life in writing for the sake of the Church.
Yet Macrina was not only a formidable intellect given to theological contemplation, but also a compassionate servant in the community. Following the deaths of her fiancé and her father, Macrina cared for her mother and convinced her to turn their vast estate into a house of hospitality; this community of women took in slaves, taught women, cared for the sick and fed the poor. Indeed, Gregory especially praised her for the service she renderd most likely during the famine of 368 AD. Macrina cared for many, Gregory says, “after finding them prostrate along the highway at the moment of starvation and she led them to the pure and incorruptible life” (FOC, vol. 58, p. 182–183).
However, the light of Macrina’s faith, according to her brother, shined most brightly when confronted with the darkness of death. Gregory praised her for the way she handled the deaths of her fiancé, her mother and father, and two beloved brothers, Naucratius and Basil. Yet Macrina’s greatest virtue was manifested as she endured her own death with Gregory at her side. Even on her deathbed, Gregory characterized her as his teacher and mentor giving a final instruction. As the night passed, Gregory noticed that his sister was “no longer speaking to those of us who were present, but to that very One toward whom she looked with steadfast eyes” (FOC, vol. 58, p. 179).
Gregory played on the fact that, following the death of her fiancé, Macrina never married, but lived the life of one betrothed. In her final moments, Gregory suggested that her entire life is reduced to prayer, by which she now moves with haste toward the true Bridegroom and the fulfillment of her long betrothal. Her final petition was an appropriate conclusion to her life: “Do You who have the power on earth to forgive sins forgive me so that I may be refreshed and may be found before You once I have put off my body, having no fault in the form of my soul, but blameless and spotless may my soul be taken into Your hands as an offering before Your face” (FOC, vol. 58, p. 181). “As she said this,” Gregory wrote, “she made the sign of the cross upon her eyes and mouth and heart…and with the prayer her life came to an end” (FOC, vol. 58, p. 181).
St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine (331—387 AD)
Fatherhood is a man’s highest calling as God makes him the root and source from which children are generated. Motherhood is a woman’s highest calling as God makes her the place, in which children are generated, nourished and brought to maturity. St. Monica is a wonderful example of true motherhood; through her life, God molded St. Augustine according to his will, forming him into one of the most significant theologians in the history of Christendom.
Monica is known to us through the writing of her son, Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine tells the narrative of his own spiritual journey toward God, the only true fulfillment of his longing. His mother, Monica, was a constant presence that patiently and persistently shaped and formed the direction of his life. When he was a young man, however, Monica appeared powerless and pitiful. Augustine was obviously brilliant, yet rebellious toward his mother’s wishes. He pursued a secular career in rhetoric, joined a heretical sect called the Manicheans and had a child out of wedlock with a concubine. Monica could do little to stop the dangerous direction of his life; in her helpless state, she devoted herself to constant prayer, which often consisted of passionate cries to God to turn her son back to the true faith. Indeed, in response to her persistent prayers, one priest simply said, “Go your way, and God bless you. It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish” (NPNF, series 1, vol. 1, p. 67).
Monica’s prayers became the setting in which Augustine lived and moves; her petitions are a divine power shaping his identity. In the end, Augustine simply could not escape his mother’s prayers and, finally, converted to the orthodox faith and was baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan on Easter of 387 AD. Monica’s grief over her son was turned into eternal joy. More than 30 years of prayer were finally fulfilled.
In one of her final conversations with her son, Monica said, “Son, as for me, I do not have any pleasure in anything in this life anymore. I do not know what I want here anymore, and why I am here, now that my hopes in the world are satisfied. There was just one reason I wanted to linger a little while in this life and that was to be able to see you a catholic Christian before I died. My God has given me far more than that. I see you despising all earthly happiness, and made into his servant. What am I doing here?” (NPNF, series 1, vol. 1, 137–138). Just a few days later Monica succumbed to a fever and died at the age of 56 with her son at her side.
The Rev. Dr. James G. Bushur is associate professor Church History and director of Deaconess Formation at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.