In or around the first year of the Lord, a meeting took place that would forever change the course of history. There was in those days an older woman living in the hill country of Judea. At this particular time, she was hiding, because something wondrous had happened to her. Despite the old age of this woman and her husband, a Jewish priest, and despite the fact that she, as a woman, was unable to bear children, she found herself pregnant and carrying a son in her womb.
To this woman came another woman, or more accurately, a young girl of about 15 or so. She, too, was carrying a Child in her womb, but her circumstances were even more wondrous. Although she was a young and unmarried virgin, she was just told by the Holy Archangel Gabriel that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, conceive, and give birth to a male Child Who was described in the following way:
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end (Lk 1:32–33).
In response to the Archangel’s strange words, the Holy Virgin said, “Yes,” and conceived the Child Who was only the size of a grain of sand in her womb as she traveled with haste throughout the hill country to meet the older woman.
And so this pivotal meeting between the Holy Virgin Mary and her older cousin, St. Elizabeth, began. In St. Elizabeth’s womb was the child who would prepare the world to receive our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Holy Virgin Mary’s womb was the Son of God Who came to save us from our great enemies — the devil, sin, and death — and reconcile us once and for all to God. Essentially, this is the beginning of the history of our salvation in the first pages of the Gospel.
Meditate on this magnificent scene and who was present. Was it a prophet? A priest? A king? No, it was simply two women and the children in their wombs. How appropriate it is that the story of our salvation begins with these two women. As Origen of Alexandria said in his Homilies on Luke 8:1, “Sin began from the woman and then spread to the man. In the same way, salvation had its first beginnings from women.” Sin spread from the first woman, Eve, who was supposed to be the “mother of the living” but failed to live up to that name. Salvation came to us in Christ through the Holy Virgin Mary, the “Second Eve,” who is not only the “mother of the living,” but rather, the mother of Life Himself. 1
Not only were women present at the beginning of the history of our salvation, we also find them throughout the ministry of our Savior. One cannot help but notice how tender and compassionate our Savior was towards women in the Gospel. How much did He love Mary and Martha? How gentle was He with St. Photini, the Samaritan woman? With what courage did He defend the sinful woman? It’s no wonder, then, that the first witnesses of the Resurrection were women.
When we meditate on the pivotal role played by women in the history of our salvation, one wonders why it is that a small minority of Orthodox women today are expressing dissatisfaction with their role in the Church and even going to great lengths to campaign on social media and try to lead others astray. What they seek ultimately is the priesthood and the diaconate, the right to hold the censer and feel more “relevant” in liturgical services.
It seems to me that these women, despite their good intentions, have unknowingly embraced the false and misguided concept of equality found in our society. When our society speaks about women’s rights, it basically offers a “me, too” equality, which goes something like this: “Whatever men do, women should do, as well, because they can perhaps do it better.” 2 This is not true equality, however, because God, in His wisdom, did not create Adam and Eve to fulfill the same tasks. In Genesis 3, they were given two very different callings in life: Adam was to find his salvation through hard work and labor, and Eve was to find her salvation in childbearing. Each had a different calling, but they were both equally children of God. This is the correct equality found in Christianity: an equality that embraces the God-given differences in the genders. What is important is that God has given women the same opportunity to attain holiness and eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven, albeit by different means.
A good example of this is the story of Sts. Zacharias and Elizabeth. Remember that Zacharias, on the one hand, was a priest who served the Altar in the presence of God. Despite this, when the Holy Archangel Gabriel appeared to him, Zacharias doubted the words of the Lord while he was standing in the presence of God. His wife, Elizabeth, on the other hand, was not a priest and not a servant of the Altar. Nevertheless, when the Holy Virgin Mary visited her with Christ in her womb, Elizabeth found herself in the presence of God and exclaimed, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). Thus, between Zacharias and Elizabeth, who believed? Who benefited from being in the presence of God? It was the woman, not the priest.
There are thus many ways in which women can be in the presence of God, but the priesthood is not one of them. Our daughters need not hold the censer in order to feel “relevant.” Instead, we exhort our daughters to embrace their womanhood and imitate the Holy Virgin Mary who herself became a living censer, bearing the fire of God’s Divinity in her womb for nine months. She did this without ever having touched a censer with her hands or serving as a deacon or priest in any way.
In the end, holding the censer or ministering in the Holy Altar offers absolutely no assurance of salvation. Zacharias held the censer and ministered at the Holy Altar many times, but he doubted the words of the Holy Archangel. The heresiarchs Arius and Nestorius did the same things, one as a presbyter in Alexandria and the other as Patriarch of Constantinople, but they fell into terrible heresies that led to their perdition. On the other hand, imitating the Holy Virgin Mary, the living censer, does offer an assurance of salvation, because her way of life and virtues made her worthy to be the Mother of God. She is a treasure of perfect virtues, like purity, humility, obedience, simplicity, faith, love, courage, and many others that we need to learn in order to attain salvation.
If salvation is the goal, then, don’t strive to hold the censer. Strive to be like the censer.