The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.
Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.
What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:
- God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
- Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
- More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom
Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.
Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!
Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.
Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.
So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.