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Epilogue: Made in God’s image and called to proclaim Christ

Religious life as we know it today, both contemplative and active, has evolved over two millennia. In this final of four articles, Christine Schenk provides an analysis regarding what may have led early Christian women to be active contributors to the building of the church.

By Christine Schenk CSJ

As three previous articles in this series attest, evidence from tomb iconography and inscriptions about early Christian women, as well as contemporaneous writings about the “mothers of the church,” reveal that women exercised governance, serving as enrolled widows, deacons, heads of house churches and monasteries, evangelists, teachers, missionaries, and prophets. In most instances, women governed other women, although there are significant exceptions, such as the deaconess Marthana in Seleucia (Turkey), who governed a double monastery on the site of the martyrium of Saint Thecla. These early Christian women freely witnessed and preached despite significant opposition from early Christian men.

How women overcame opposition

One could reasonably ask from whence came the strength and inner authority that impelled women of the early church to disregard attempts to suppress their voices. I suggest that what led women to speak rather than to remain silent was their faith in the risen Christ.

Let us examine one sarcophagus that suggests what at least one Christian woman (we will call her “Junia” as her actual name is unknown) understood to be the source of her inner authority (Figure 1).

In the center of Figure 1, Junia holds a codex in her left hand while her right hand is shown with a speech gesture. Arrayed on either side are Biblical scenes including (left to right): God the Father with Cain and Abel, Christ with Adam and Eve, healing of the paralytic, healing of the blind man, miracle at Cana, and the raising of Lazarus. Several years before she died, Junia, or her family, commissioned this uniquely sculpted sarcophagus to memorialize her and the values that shaped her identity.

When Junia died, her sarcophagus would have been delivered to her home, where she would lie in state for up to seven days, so family members, clients, and friends could pay their respects and gaze upon her carefully carved memorial. They entered a liminal space to reflect upon her life, her values, her beliefs, and, inevitably, the meaning of life and death.

In an article published in 2004, Dr. Janet Tulloch, a specialist in early Christian images, observed that ancient art was viewed as social discourse meant to “draw the viewer in as a participant,” and that art was understood “to perform meaning(s) not simply embed them.” Using Tulloch’s criteria, it is plausible that Junia wished her loved ones to enter into a liminal space and experience Christ’s power to reverse the effects of the fall – healing the blind and lame, providing an abundance of wine in the new reign of God, and raising Lazarus (and Junia) from the dead.

Detail of anonymous deceased woman with codex and speech gesture while Christ leans in to speak to her. (Photo © Vatican Museums: Pio Cristiano Museum, inv. 31556. All rights reserved.)

Detail of anonymous deceased woman with codex and speech gesture while Christ leans in to speak to her. (Photo © Vatican Museums: Pio Cristiano Museum, inv. 31556. All rights reserved.) 

Where did Junia find her authority to witness and teach about Christ? A hint is found when we examine her face, carefully sculpted near the face of Christ who leans in, with mouth open, as if to whisper in her ear (Figure 2). Junia and her family wished her to be remembered as someone who taught with the authority of Christ. Her mourners commune not only with the departed Junia but also with the Christ who heals and raises up through the meaning evoked and “performed” by the art on her sarcophagus. Junia exhorts the living to embrace the Christ who authorized her ministry and to whom she witnesses from beyond the grave.

Later pioneers

These 4th-century women are forerunners to the monastic and apostolic sisters of later eras who trusted in the power of Christ to bring forth healing and justice despite significant opposition. For example, the rise of public education and public hospitals in the west and in the global south can be traced to orders of women religious who refused to be cloistered so they would be free to minister to the sick-poor and uneducated.

Clare of Assisi wrote the first monastic rule for women. No longer would her community rely on dowries from the wealthy. This meant that all her sisters would be equal. The bishop opposed her for many years only acceding when Clare was on her deathbed. Despite fears from the Inquisition, Theresa of Avila mapped a new pathway for experiencing God present in the center of our being as well as in church instructions and sacraments. During the Black Death, Julian of Norwich proclaimed a merciful God who did not condemn to eternal damnation those who died before receiving absolution, as the church taught at the time. “All will be well, all manner of things shall be well,” she told her despairing townspeople. In general, women Doctors of the Church (Teresa of Avila, Hildegarde of Bingen, Therese of Lisieux, and Catherine of Siena) witnessed to a God of mercy rather than of judgement.

The carved reliefs on our foremother “Junia’s” tomb suggest that her experience of communion with the risen Christ was foundational to her preaching and teaching despite admonitions to remain silent. In the long and storied history of Christianity—and perhaps particularly in the history of women’s religious orders—Christ’s near companioning has helped believers overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, strengthening them to take risks on behalf of our Abba-God whose love will—in the end—reign on earth as in heaven.


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