Orthodox Women – Receiving Communion IV

Myrrhbearing women at the tomb

In this fourth post considering the issue of Orthodox women receiving communion during their monthly period we will begin to draw on other Patristic material to widen the scope of this study. Consideration of the instructions of Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria on this matter have shown us:

  • There appears to be a cultural basis for the categorisation of the monthly period as creating a state of being ritually unclean or unprepared in body and soul to receive communion
  • This prohibition based on impurity does not apply to marital sexual relations or to male emissions
  • The concept of ritual impurity is only applied to the case of a woman experiencing her period
  • These two texts were not originally synodal canons but advice to correspondents

None of these are any reason simply to ignore or even reject these statements. They are one aspect of the Patristic corpus and they must be placed into context within that wider Patristic testimony. But these are not ecumenical canons, with a universal authority, and they do not describe a general concept of ritual impurity since this idea is applied only to women during their monthly period. Nor is there any theological or Scriptural basis give for this prohibition and introduction of the idea of impurity, which does suggest strongly that it is a cultural response.

Of course we have seen that Dionysius does introduce the Gospel account of the healing of the woman who had an issue of blood to support his view. But it is introduced to support an opinion which he considered to be obvious to all. It is not the basis of his instruction. It is reasonable to ask if other Fathers read this passage from the Gospel in the same way. He sees it as describing the impure state in which a woman finds herself during her monthly period, such that this woman did not dare to touch Christ himself, but only his garment.

St John Chrysostom preached on this passage. He certainly recognises that within the Jewish Law this woman was unclean, as was every woman who had an issue of blood. He says…

Wherefore did she not approach Him boldly? She was ashamed on account of her affliction, accounting herself to be unclean. For if the menstruous woman was judged not to be clean, much more would she have the same thought, who was afflicted with such a disease; since in fact that complaint was under the law accounted a great uncleanness. Therefore she lies hidden, and conceals herself. For neither had she as yet the proper and correct opinion concerning Him: else she would not have thought to be concealed. And this is the first woman that came unto Him in public, having heard of course that He heals women also, and that He is on His way to the little daughter that was dead.

Chrysostom understands why the woman did not approach our Lord Jesus directly. She felt herself to be unclean, and according to the Jewish Law she was in a state of ritual impurity. This was a woman with an unceasing issue of blood, and Chrysostom indicates that her state was even worse than that of a woman during her monthly period, who was also unclean according to the Law. We can be sure of this, if the Church is under the Jewish Law then it is entirely true that a woman in the time of her monthly period is unclean. But what does this Father say? It is that the woman does not yet have the proper and correct opinion concerning him. If she had known who Christ was and how he stood in relation to ritual impurity she would have realised that there was no need to hide herself and to approach him secretly. Chrysostom is clear. It is under the Law that the woman is considered unclean, and not apart from the Law.

Dionysius also uses this passage to suggest that the woman did not actually touch our Lord, and in the same way the woman who is experiencing her monthly period should not touch the Mysteries. But this is not how Chrysostom understands the passage. He says…

Christ did not immediately call her, but first He says, “Which is he that touched me?” Then when Peter and they that were with Him said, Master, the multitude throng Thee, and press Thee, and sayest Thou, who touched me?”(which was a very sure sign both that He was encompassed with real flesh, and that He trampled on all vainglory, for they did not follow Him at all afar off, but thronged Him on every side); He for His part continued to say, “Somebody has touched me, for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me;”answering after a plainer manner according to the impression of His hearers.

Indeed, it is important to Chrysostom that Christ says, Who touched me? because it indicates the reality of his flesh which could be touched. Not only was he truly touched, but he felt that power or virtue for healing had gone out from him. Our Lord repeats himself, Somebody has touched me. Therefore when Dionysius says, For not even the woman with a twelve years’ issue would come into actual contact with Him, this is not exactly what the Lord Jesus, or Chrysostom state. Dionysius surely means to say that out of reverence the woman did not touch the Lord, but the Lord Jesus says twice that she did touch him. He does not say, Who touched my clothes? He also comments on the fact that our Lord made the woman step forward and explain what she had done. He says…

Jesus puts an end to her fear. He does not want her to remain trapped in dread. He gives no cause for her conscience to be harmed, as if she had stolen the gift. Second, he corrects her assumption that she has no right to be seen.

This seems to me to be significant if this passage is to be used in the context of a faithful woman receiving communion during her monthly period. Chrysostom takes the view that not only did our Lord Jesus not want her to have any concern about having approached and touched him in her condition, he wants her to be clear that she had every right to approach and touch him. This is the same understanding which is found in the commentary of St Cyril of Alexandria. He writes on this passage saying…

It was because the law of the all-wise Moses imputed impurity to any woman who was suffering from an issue of blood, and everywhere called her unclean: and whoever was unclean, might neither touch any thing that was holy, nor approach a holy man. For this reason the woman was careful to remain concealed, lest as having transgressed the law, she should have to bear the punishment which it imposed. And when she touched, she was healed immediately and without delay.

We should note that again it is clear that St Cyril is well aware of the Jewish Law and that one who suffered from an issue of blood, as this woman, and indeed every woman in the time of her monthly period, was considered by the Law of Moses to be ritually unclean. She was well aware that being unclean she could not touch one who was clean and holy. But nevertheless she touched him and immediately found healing. St Cyril, as Chrysostom, points out that the Lord Jesus asks twice, Who touched me? and by this is made clear that he was touched and considered that he had been touched. If he was concerned for her ritual impurity then this would have been enough to make him unclean himself. An unclean woman, as far as the Law was concerned, had touched the Lord Jesus, but he does not speak about ritual impurity at all, rather he says, Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace.

What is the important conclusion which Cyril of Alexandria draws from this account? It is not that the Law of ritual impurity applies also to Christians, and especially to Orthodox women during their monthly period. On the contrary, he says…

And this too was for the benefit of Jairus, though it was indeed a hard lesson. For he learns, that neither the legal worship, nor the shedding of blood, nor the slaying of goats and calves, nor the circumcision of the flesh, nor the rest of the sabbaths, nor ought besides of these temporary and typical matters, can save the dwellers upon earth; faith only in Christ can do so, by means of which even the blessed Abraham was justified, and called the friend of God, and counted worthy of especial honours. And the blessing of God has been given also to those, who according to the terms of the promise were to be his sons: even unto us. “For they are not all Israel; who are of Israel, neither because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all sons: but the children of the promise are accounted as the seed.” To us then this grace belongs: for we have been adopted as Abraham’s sons, “being justified not so much by the works of the law, as by faith in Christ;” by Whom, and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever, Amen

We need to read this passage carefully. Cyril indicates that the Lord Jesus healed the woman with the issue of blood not only for her sake but to teach Jairus a necessary lesson. What is this lesson? It is that none of the works of the Law have any power to save whatsoever. The Lord Jesus is not bound by the Law of ritual impurity, nor does he will that this troubled woman be bound by the Law, for the fulfillment of the Law is now present and we are not made right with God by any practices associated with cleansing a ritual impurity but wholly by faith in Christ.

Hilary of Poitiers, another early Father, also commenting on this passage, says…

At first it seemed more appropriate to follow the law of cleanliness. But a more pristine wholeness is restored to publicans and sinners in the appearance of the woman.

Certainly it had seemed to the Jews that the Law of ritual purity should be followed, but as Hilary notes, with the coming of Christ a more significant sense of wholeness and purity is now offered to mankind, and the Law of external purity and impurity is no longer in force for the Christian. Indeed, as Hilary indicates, this account in the Gospel is not about the universal and continuing importance of ritual purity at all, but on the contrary it represents the end of such ritual cleanliness once and for all.

It seems to me that the only Scriptural warrant for suggesting that a woman is unclean during her period, in the instructions of both Dionysius and Timothy (though Timothy does not give anything other than a bare prohibition), is this passage in the Gospels referring to the woman with an issue of blood who was healed by our Lord. But the other Fathers, and these are all more well known Fathers, do not read the passage as in any way promoting or endorsing the Jewish Law of ritual purity. Far from it. They even express the sense that this account describes the end of such a ritual Law. Nor do they stress the idea that she only touched his garments, other than to commend her humility. In the contrary, it is important to these Fathers that she did touch Christ, just as he says, Who touched me?

This leaves us, in regard to Dionysius and Timothy, with a culturally determined attitude towards women in their monthly period. This does not invalidate any such instruction. There are many things in every culture which are taken for granted. They do not seem to need explanation. But when there is a change in culture some of these things that once seemed clear to all now require either a better explanation or modification.

In the next section we will look at some of the other Patristic sources which demonstrate that the cultural sense found in Dionysius, that it is clear to all that a woman should not commune, was certainly not shared by all the Fathers.

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