A closer look at women in the Syriac tradition
“After he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” Mark 16:9-11
This is not the first time that a woman is the first to receive the news and proclaim God’s plan of salvation. The Virgin Mary was the first to learn of God’s salvific plan by her conception of Jesus the Christ. Similarly, Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus who had left everything during her life and used her own resources to assist our Lord on his ministry (Luke 8:1-3) is the first to receive the news of the Risen Lord.
One of the most outstanding features of the early Syriac writers is their treatment of women. Unlike the Greek and Roman traditions, the early Syriac treatment of women accorded them great respect. The Syriac fathers wanted to hear women.
St Jacob of Serugh writes a poem praising St Ephrem for his inclusion of women in his hymns and in choirs. He writes
By you even the sisters are strengthened to speak.
Your instruction has opened the closed mouth of the daughters of Eve,
and with their voices throngs of crowned women are singing out,
and women teachers are being called into the congregations ‑‑
a new vision that women will speak the Gospel!
It is a New Age, a complete sign of your teaching
that there in the kingdom men and women will be equal.
Your effort made the two sexes into two harps,
and men and women began simultaneously to give glory.
The hymn continues comparing Miriam and the women who gave praise when the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea and defeated Pharaoh (Exodus 15:20-21), to the women who sang out after Christ’s resurrection.
“Greater is this glory than that one (then),
for greater also is the salvation that is now brought about.
By that salvation the sea was torn asunder before the daughter of Jacob.
By this one of ours, graves are bursting open by the power of our Lord.
Then Pharaoh the king was drowned because [his heart] was hardened,
but now Death is swallowed up and extinguished by Life.
Then a staff in the riven seas built bulwarks,
but now a cross in solid rocks has worked stupendous deeds.
Then a path in the seas was broken through and the tribes crossed over,
but now the devouring pit is broken through and the nations are emerging.
That salvation put to death the living of Egypt,
but this one of ours made the dead rise up from [their] graves.
. . .
Then arose the proud bride from the sea
and the Hebrew women beat the tambourines to give glory.
But now that the redeemed Church has bathed in baptism,
with the chants of Ephrem the sisters clap to make joyful sounds.”
Jacob continues encouraging women:
[It is] as if these [words] were spoken by Moses
to the young women whom he summoned to give glory:
“Let you also not be reserved today with respect to praise.
Beat the tambourines before the Savior Who freed His people.
Not for men alone was salvation at the sea
so that they alone should give glory to the One Who saved them.
At the sea you crossed over with your brothers and your fathers.
Shout out praise with them in a loud voice.
You, like your husbands, have seen stupendous deeds and wonders.
In their company give glory by your hosannas to El, the mighty warrior.
One salvation was accomplished by God for you and for them;
Let one praise arise from your mouths.
Jacob recognises that women are redeemed equally with men and therefore they should also give praise aloud to Christ.
As we hear in the Gospel of Mark, even though Mary proclaimed the Risen Lord, many who heard her still did not believe. The Body of Christ, the Church is made up of all of humanity, women, men, children, the poor and the rich and each of us can declare, Christ is Risen! Christ came for all of us and his message was radical. God chose and trusted women to be messengers of his plan and Jesus radically affirmed the full dignity of women and the vital value of their witness. In the same way the Syriac writers included women in their choirs to combat the heresies of the day. Let us remember that example in our homes, in our world and in our Church.
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