Widows and Our Spiritual Family

Thursday in the Third Week of Advent, Year A: Isaiah 54:1-10, Luke 7:24-30.

We are traveling today, so I have to keep this reflection short before we head to the airport, but I did want to write something about that venerated group in the Apostolic Age and the Patristic Age, but their role has faded into obscurity. Widows were a class unto themselves from the time of the Acts of the Apostles onward. We have some skewed ideas of them today, thanks to (false) popular belief that women could not own property, were dependent upon their husbands, and were legally subordinate in every way. Even adjusting for a more accurate historical understanding of women, widowhood rightfully evokes sympathy – losing one’s spouse is an incredibly difficult thing. We find some lovely spiritual salve for widows in today’s readings.

The Widow’s Mite, James Christensen (contemporary) | Image from havenlight.com.

Susan Hylen, PhD, MDiv, from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University has written a nice historical revision to the ideas we have about the helpless widow of antiquity. She summarizes by saying:

This historical portrait suggests there was a lot of variety in the social status of widows. Some were wealthy and even powerful. Some were poor, and many were in the middle. Some experienced a drop in economic position when their husbands’ died, and others did not. Although vulnerable in some ways, widows were also supported by social expectations that gave them increased status.

Thus, when we find specific mention of widows and barren women in scriptures, we might better understand the feeling being evoked as one of personal sympathy for people removed from highly valued things in Jewish society such as a loving spouse and children, rather than sympathy because their legal and monetary situation is dire. Isaiah uses the sad situation of widowhood to describe the devastated nation of Israel, but he promises marriage to a much better spouse: “Fear not, you shall not be put to shame; you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced. The shame of your youth you shall forget, the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember. For he who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the Lord of hosts.” There does seem to be reference to a social stigma or at least embarrassment/shame, but this can be in reference to a woman who was married and then “cast off” or divorced. But the promise is that even this deeply felt personal feeling in a social context is like nothing in the face of union with God. And, of course, this promise of the mystical marriage with God was established by Jesus in the Church.

In the early centuries of the Church, an “order” of widows existed that was as established and recognized as the role of deacon was. In fact, diakonos is simply the Greek word for a servant such as a waiter or messenger. In the early Church the deacon’s (or deaconess, in the case of widows) first role was that described in Acts 6: distributing food to the poor, leaving the apostles free to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). As early as the Apostolic Age, we hear Paul instructing, “Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:3-10). Thus, widows were not only recognized, but they performed great services for the communities of Christians, living out the maxim to love their neighbors as themselves. Some of them had inherited money and goods that they donated or used for the benefit of the early churches. Others, as we see in Paul’s statement, owned property and practiced hospitality, “lodging strangers.” The third-century Syrian book of Church order, the Didaskalia, mentions three specific roles for them: 

  1. Visiting women in their homes. It reads, in part, “… to visit those who are sick, and to minister to their needs, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness”
  2. Assisting in baptisms for women: “Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing… it is not fitting that women should be seen by men.” The Fourth-century Syrian book of Church order, the Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, adds “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important.”
  3. Keeping order in the women’s section of the church. This was like being an usher, and finding a place for any woman who comes, rich or poor, “one of a low family, or a stranger.”

Elsewhere, we read that widows would instruct young married women in caring for a household and rearing children. We can see that widows not only participated in the early Church in a special way, but even walked the Christian Way more perfectly and thoroughly than many others. It is almost like a proto-nun order, one that is steeped in worldly works rather than solitude and prayer behind convent walls. In this way, the Church as the mystical Body of Christ fulfills the promises of Isaiah in a structural way, providing real spiritual advancement towards the Kingdom for widows while on earth. And, it fully overturns our stereotypical image of widows as pitiful and helpless.

Elijah Receiving Bread from the Widow of Zarephath, Giovanni Lanfranco (1621-1624) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus takes the promise shared with Isaiah about widows and amplifies it. He exalts John the Baptist, saying, “among those born of women, no one is greater than John.” High praise, indeed! But he adds, “yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” This truth about the state of souls in heaven gives us great hope. No matter how far we’ve fallen in our lives, no matter our flaws and inability to avoid sins, if we can achieve heaven, great glory awaits us. Even the least of us in heaven is greater than the greatest human on earth! If we have ever wanted to make something of ourselves and our existence, this is it.

May we all recapture the diakonos way of living and serving that is part of the path to the Kingdom. May we all, too, be exalted eventually in heaven.

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