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Archive for May, 2019

Millions of lives have been touched by women who persevered in their calling from God to serve in His Kingdom in spite of the many uphill battles they had to fight. Women have made important contributions to the Kingdom of God while all through history they have faced cultural, theological, political, and ideological obstacles in the world and in the Church.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger. Next, we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

In our last post, we focused on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

We will conclude our study of women in the Patristic era with the story of an empress. Empress Pulcheria also known as Saint Aelia, served the Savior in the highest position in an empire. This godly woman led the Byzantine/Roman Empire with wisdom and compassion. It was said of her reign that it was the most stable in Roman memory. Truly God uses women even in the highest places of authority.

 Pulcheria (January 19, 399 -ca. August 453)

For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel… in the presence of all their friends and to the sound of trumpets, Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them to the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, “Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!” “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve! said Aslan.[1]

Most people live pretty mundane lives going about their day to day tasks, without ever thinking that realistically they will ever be the president of the United States or a famous movie star or sports hero. Yet, there is something in us that loves to hear the stories of the rich, famous, and powerful. Maybe we cannot identify with their position, but we can be encouraged to be the best we can be in whatever place God has for us.

Pulcheria, empress of the Byzantine Empire in the early fifth century is a woman whose story still enthralls all those who read about her. She was loved and respected as the most powerful woman in the world. This amazing woman reigned for forty-five years with wisdom and compassion. A devout Christian, Pulcheria not only ruled during some epic times in Rome but modeled the piety and chastity that was typical of religion during the Patristic era.

Pulcheria was born to Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia in 399 AD. She was only nine years old when her father died in 408 AD. Her younger brother, Theodosius II became emperor at age seven. Pulcheria took over her brother’s education even though she was only two years older. She was obviously a very strong young woman and her brother welcomed her rule by his side which continued until his death in 450 AD. Their reign is considered by historians to have been one of the most stable that the Empire had ever known.

When Pulcheria was fifteen years old she was proclaimed “Augusta” (Empress) by the Senate of Rome. By this time she had already demonstrated great leadership ability. Pulcheria was able to stay in power by maintaining control over the men who surrounded her brother. She had learned, from her mother Empress Eudoxia by all accounts, how to play the court leaders off against each other. She also avoided their attempts at sidelining her by arranging a marriage for her. She remained single and at her brother Theodosius’s side as his most trusted relative.

Theodosius needed Pulcheria. He was a kind and good natured boy, but he was weak and self-indulgent. Some historians say that he did not appear to have ever accomplished a single political act under his own initiative. Fortunately he knew that he could leave the affairs of state to his brilliant sister. Later when he died leaving no heir a civil war was prevented because Pulcheria was so able and willing to remain on the throne.

Instead of listening to the court advisors, Pulcheria and Theodosius turned to the Church for support. Monks, clergy and commoners loved these rulers because Pulcheria founded many churches and monasteries, as well as hostels for the poor and homeless. Pulcheria won the love of the faithful when she led the royal court in acts of piety, charity, fasting, and prayer. She gave away the money to beggars that would have otherwise been used on luxurious clothing or frivolous entertainment.

There were some significant events in the Church during the reign of Pulcheria. Several heresies arose and were debated. The Third Ecumenical Council was held at Ephesus in 431 AD to deal with the heresy of Nestorius. The Council of Chalcedon (451) was convened to deal the heresies of Dioscorus and Eutychius. Pulcheria defended the Orthodox position. She maintained a friendship with Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412 -444) who was the bishop of the Christian Church in Africa and one of the great theologians of the time. Pulcheria was well educated and able to judge in theological matters.

Several times Pulcheria retired to a monastery for a contemplative life. When Theodosius married, his new wife tried to take over as the controlling influence in his life. Pulcheria wisely bowed out rather than cause conflict. Several years later she was called back by her brother when things deteriorated in the Empire without her wise rule. She ruled with Theodosius until his death in 450 AD.

After the death of Theodosius a senator named Marcion was chosen as the next emperor. The court entreated Pulcheria to remain on the throne. She could only do this by marrying Marcion which she was reluctant to do because of her vow of virginity. However, Marcion honored Pulcheria’s vow of chastity and the two were married but lived together as brother and sister. As co-rulers they continued to build the Empire. They defeated Attila the Hun when he laid siege to Rome in 452.

Not long afterward Pulcheria died (453). She had led a full and rewarding life. In her will she left all of her wealth to the poor and Marcion honored her by carrying it out.  Pulcheria was the most powerful woman of her century and one of the most important people even among men. She has been canonized as a saint; her feast days are February 17 and August 7.

Pulcheria is remembered for guiding the Empire during the times of stress and peril. A grateful populace held her in high esteem for her acts of charity. Church leaders respected her for her orthodox stance on theological issues. Pulcheria’s life of wisdom, charity, and faithfulness are proof that God does indeed call and gift women for service even in leadership positions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe(New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978). p. 181,182.

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Half of the “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is female. Male-authored church history books have often left women out because they believe that women’s stories are irrelevant. This is especially noticeable for early Christian women. The fact is that women helped to build the Church, especially in the early years before the Church became institutionalized. When the Church organized herself she established a male-only priesthood despite the fact that all believers, male and female are priests (I Peter 2:9).

Women have made important contributions to history. On this blog we have posted nearly 300 stories of women. For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

Last week we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

This week we will focus on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

There were dangers involved in traveling and living in a harsh desert, but the hardships actually served to test the women’s determination and commitment to Christ. The solitude was essential for meditation. In small communities of like-minded ascetics, Christians could support each other and encourage each other in the faith. This was essential especially in the days of persecution.

 

Melania the Elder (c. 350 to either 410 or 417)

Melania the Elder was born in Spain around 350 AD. She was born into a wealthy, noble family. When she turned fourteen Melania married and she and her husband moved into the suburbs of Rome as members of the highest echelon of the Roman aristocracy. Melania excelled in scholarship, rivalling Paula (see post April 2, 2019), Jerome, and Marcella in her biblical and theological knowledge.

Melania remained in Spain until her husband died eight years after their marriage, ¬†becoming a widow at the age of 22. Two of her children also died. Following this tragedy she converted to Christianity. When her remaining son turned ten she found a family to take care of him and she set off for Alexandria. She would eventually be reunited with her son in Jerusalem many years later after he had married. His daughter, her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, came to Christ and followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Melania and some other Christians traveled to visit the monks at Nitria. She gave much of her wealth to the needy Christians in Egypt who were being persecuted by the Arians following the death of the orthodox champion Athanasius in 373 AD. It is said that nearly 5000 people were fed with the blessing of her gift. Some of those persecuted Christians fled to Jerusalem. Melania traveled there and founded a convent for virgins on the Mount of Olives. Nearly fifty young women found salvation in Christ through her ministry.

Melania went on to found more monasteries. She was put in prison for a time by the governor, but he had to release her when he found out that she was in the aristocracy. Eventually she entered a convent.

The Visigoths invaded Rome in 410 AD. (Some believe that Melania might have died in a Visigoth raid in 410 AD). Others believe that Melania, her daughter-in-law Albina, and her granddaughter Melania fled to Sicily. From Sicily they traveled to North Africa where they stayed for seven years. Then they returned to Jerusalem where Melania died around 417 SD.

Melania was a source of inspiration for many Christians. Believers followed her example in founding monasteries and other Christian communities. She is remembered as a pious saint, following in Christ’s footsteps, identifying with His poverty and compassion for others.

Amma Sarah (4th Century)

Little is known about some Desert Mothers except through the few accounts that have been preserved. There are three – Amma (Mother) Sarah, Amma Theodora, and Amma Syncletica – who stand out as women who were humble, insightful, and wise. Syncletica and Theodora became known as wise teachers. Amma Sarah especially engaged her wit and wisdom in dealing with the everyday life of Christians.

One problem that the female ascetics had that the men didn’t have was the reaction of the monks towards the women. Men expected the women to do things for them that the men would never do for the women. This inequality bothered Sarah, but it was more important to her to be Christlike and that meant being humble and showing a servant’s heart, even if the men did not.

Sarah desired to move beyond the gender issues and make every effort to show that serving Christ is what mattered. She still had to deal with the imbalance in power in that patriarchal society and so she responded to their discrimination in wise ways. Here is a story attributed to her:

On Male Injustice– “Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’

So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking of yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.”‘

But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.'”

Of course this last saying follows what the apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). As children of God, every Christian, male and female, reads the Bible, studies, prays, and does works of charity. There is no gender in these inner characteristics of the heart and mind.

What few writings we have of Sarah are enough to show a woman of faith, devotion, and wisdom. She spoke on the Christian life:

On Charity– “It is good for us to do charity, even if to have the glory of men. For if, in the beginning, our charity rises from the desire to please men, there will afterwards come that moment when it will become true charity, since it will be pleasing to God.”

On the Spiritual Life– “I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.” Here Sarah recognizes that on the spiritual ladder of life, one needs to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). This requires a keen sense of one’s own sinfulness and the need to constantly pray, seek forgiveness, and present “your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

This is what the Desert Mothers sought to do. They believed that a life of celibacy, ascetism, contemplation, and charitable works was a way of pleasing God. They desired to be like Christ Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Christ did not marry and have children. Christ went about preaching and healing. Christ spent much time in prayer. All of these ways of emulating the Lord Jesus are open to women equally with men.

Women in the Patristic world left a great legacy. In our next post we will see that women were great leaders as well.

 

 

 

 

 

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