Involving Our Young Girls
By Rebekah Thurner
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s may have been vastly different than it is today, but one thing that hasn’t changed for Orthodox Christian girls is the question: “Why can’t I go behind the altar and serve?” “Why can’t I help at the Divine Liturgy as the altar boys do?”
Well, thirty-five years ago we girls were told that that was simply the way it was; the Apostles were all men and Holy Tradition dictated that females could not be behind the iconostasis. It didn’t seem fair to me that the boys could get so close to everything that was important: the Holy Gospel, the chalice, the candles, the censer, and the priest.
As an adult now, I accept the wisdom of the Church and willingly accept the variety of ways I, as a woman, can serve. But I know that in the minds and hearts of all the young girls who attend liturgy, the same question I had is still there, waiting to be answered.
That is why it was so fulfilling to see girls involved in the service at a small mission church we belonged to about 10 years ago. Comprised of about 15 families, the young girls, second grade and older, took turns distributing little plastic cups of wine to communicants after Holy Communion. It was a small responsibility, but one that they took very seriously and which gave them a sense of being “part of the action.” They were a special team that was not only serving God, but also providing an opportunity for female stewardship that could only help them to blossom into future servers of the Church. I thank St. John of Damascus Church in Poway, California for that lovely experience.
When my family moved to Ohio two years ago, I knew I wanted to bring that same feeling of participation to the girls of Holy Trinity Church in Parma. Having a 10-year old daughter (and an 8-year old altar boy) helped motivate me to form our small group of Handmaidens just a few months ago: 15 girls between the ages of 7 and 14.
Our church does not participate in the custom of distributing wine after Communion, so I borrowed another idea from St. John’s in order to get the girls involved. Our primary purpose is to bake and distribute small prosphoras that individuals or families may offer for commemoration during the proskomedia, or preparation of the Holy Gifts. Each small loaf is accompanied by an index card listing the first names of the family’s living and deceased relatives, and Father Berzonsky prays for each person on the card as he cuts a small piece from the loaf that then becomes part of the Eucharist. It is a wonderful and mystical way to share in the Body and Blood of Christ, and the prayer that we say after baking the prosphora illustrates its importance:
Dear Lord, this bread that we have baked represents each one of us in this family and in our congregation. We are offering ourselves to You, our very life, in humble obedience and total commitment to You. We place ourselves on your holy altar through this bread, to be used by You in any way that You feel will help enlarge Your kingdom. Accept our gift and make us worthy to receive the greater gift that You will give us when You consecrate this bread and give it back to us as Your Precious Body. Amen.
So far, we have had two communal baking sessions at our church kitchen under the guidance of Father Deacon Anthony, who has helped instruct us regarding the preparation not only of the ingredients, but of our minds as well. Now that we are all familiar with the process, the girls and their mothers (and families) will be responsible for baking the necessary quantity at home for the Sunday they are assigned, though occasionally we will bake as a group because the girls enjoy being together.
Once the prosphoras are baked, they are frozen in Ziploc bags. The handmaidens who are scheduled that week (we have 2 per Sunday) are responsible then for the following:
*Making sure that all commemoration cards are pulled and ready for Father after Vespers on Saturday evening. These are kept on a silver tray in the vesting room off the altar. Father then takes the necessary number of loaves from the freezer to thaw overnight, and prays over them the next morning before Divine Liturgy.
*Taking the loaves from the side of the altar on Sunday morning and putting them into baggies. These are then placed on top of each commemoration card alphabetically on a table in our fellowship hall. Parhisioners come to the table after liturgy to get their prosphora, or if they forget, the handmaidens hunt them down!
*Finally, putting the cards and the silver tray back in the vesting room for the following week.
DONATIONS PROVIDE MEANS FOR ADDITIONAL STEWARDSHIP
A donation of $1 per loaf is asked, and for ease of both preparation and record keeping, most parishioners pay annually ($52) or semiannually ($26). This way, they know that each week their loved ones will be prayed for, and we know how many will be necessary each week. With the donations the girls have received, they have voted to tithe 10% to a local Orthodox charity, and to use a portion to offer a new Lenten altar table cover and skirt. Not only do their efforts involve them physically in the life of the service, they also provide themselves with the monetary ability to donate to the church and to the needy.
Another project that the Handmaidens are undertaking is to learn how to stitch their own Pascha basket covers. One of our Women’s Club members is graciously donating both the materials and her time to meet with the girls each Sunday during Great Lent before Vespers, and I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment and deep appreciation the girls will have for their finished product.
COMMENTS FROM THE GIRLS
I know they are enjoying their new role as handmaidens and are looking forward to other opportunities for serving their church. Here are some of their comments:
“I have lots of fun at Handmaiden meetings and I think that the Handmaiden Club is a good way to let the girls feel important.”
Amelia Troutman, 9
“I like getting together with the other girls, baking the bread, and doing something for God.”
Becky Mravetz, 8
“Being together with your friends is the fun part of making prosphora at church.”
Rebecca Hastings, 11
“What I like about being a Handmaiden at Holy Trinity is making the bread, and being able to help the church that way. I also like being with the girls and having fun with them.”
Rachel Thurner, 10
“The feeling of togetherness and learning how to make prosphora are two of the best parts of being a Handmaiden.”
Elizabeth Hastings, 13
“Being in the Handmaidens group is giving me a chance to make better friends. I also like making and sharing the prosphora with members of the church community.”
Alice Palivoda, 9
“I like Handmaidens because I think that it is a nice experience for me to help with the church.”
Bridget Kall, 11
“What Handmaidens means to me is getting children involved in God and church more. We get to make the church bread for Father. Also, we get to make our Easter basket covers. What Handmaidens also means to me is doing good things for God.”
Nicole Koch, 10
“I like being a Handmaiden because it is fun to have an important job in the church.”
Christiana Khouri, 11
“The Handmaidens is something fun for girls to do in church.”
Gabrielle Hatch, 10
“I enjoy being a Handmaiden because I can take part in church activities. It is fun to make prosphora, and I exceedingly like to help out. It’s nice to be able to spend time with fellow church members and to get to know each other better. We went caroling at a nursing home. It was very meaningful to be able to make so many people happy.”
Justine Palivoda, 11
“I think that being a Handmaiden is a wonderful experience to get involved in my church.”
Adrienne Hatch, 13
“It’s nice that the girls have a special job as the boys do. I also like getting together with my friends to make the holy bread.”
Lesley Sherwood, 9
“I enjoy Handmaidens because we get to do fun activities and serve the Church at the same time.”
Andrea Clos, 11
“I like being a Handmaiden because I can be with my church friends.”
Justine Blocksom, 11
It is very rewarding for me to hear comments like these, and to know that this job of making prosphora is giving our girls a sense of unity, belonging, and fellowship. These are critical years to foster this kind of involvement, so that they never have the feeling that they are simply bystanders or spectators in a religion so rich in tradition and faith. May God continue to bless our efforts.
(For an explanation of restrictions for those who enter the altar, read the following: Ed.)
There is…no reason why women as women are forbidden to walk in the area of the altar table (i.e. “behind the iconostasis”) should there be some reason to do so. What is forbidden in the Church’s canonical regulations is for lay persons generally, and women in particular, to approach the table of offering (i.e. the altar) during the holy liturgy to offer the holy gifts. All lay persons are forbidden such action as lay persons, including government officials, for whom certain canonical restrictions were originally intended.
Women in particular are forbidden since they have no place among the bishops and priests as women, with canonical regulation indicating that there was an attempt to violate this doctrine at some point in history. Generally speaking, in Orthodox liturgical practice only those blessed to be in the sanctuary around the altar for some particular purpose are permitted to go there, during liturgical services and at other times. This pertains to men and women equally. If anyone is disposed to think that the very presence of women as women is defiling the sanctuary, let him only remember that Saint Gregory the Theologian praised his mother Nonna, a canonized saint of the Church, for having ended her earthly life “clinging to the altar table” in the sanctuary.
From: Women and Men in the Church, A Study of the Community of Women and Men in the Church (Syosset, OCA Dept. of Religious Education, 1980) p. 45.