Lydia was the Apostle Paul’s first convert to faith in Christ in Europe. A native of Thyatira in Asia Minor, in the ancient region known as Lydia, she resided in the city of Philippi in Macedonia. She was a merchant of goods dyed with the purple-red dye known as Tyrian purple, so-called because it was first extracted by the Phoenicians. Tyrian purple was extracted from the Murex sea snail and was highly prized in antiquity because it did not fade but became more vibrant and intense with weathering and exposure to sunlight. The Romans considered the dye a mark of high status: the stripe on the toga of a senator was dyed with Tyrian purple, and its use in the emperor’s toga led to its being known as “imperial purple”. The dye was all the more costly because of the difficulty of extraction. One modern writer has estimated that twelve thousand of the Murex snails yielded little more than a gram of dye, enough to dye only the trim of a single garment. Dealing in purple-dyed goods would require a good deal of capital, so Lydia was likely wealthy. When Saint Paul first met her, she was one of a group of women who met outside the city of Philippi for prayer on the Sabbath, and Saint Luke notes that she was a “worshiper of God” (Acts 16:14), suggesting that she was one of those Gentiles who kept some of the Jewish ethical and liturgical customs (including synagogue worship) without fully entering the Jewish community. According to the Acts of the Apostles, “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention” to Paul’s preaching that Sabbath, and she and her household were baptized. After this she prevailed on Paul and his companions to stay in her house, thus relieving him of the necessity of earning his support, as was his custom elsewhere. Although Lydia does not appear in any of Saint Paul’s extant epistles, his love for the church at Philippi is evident in his letter to that church, a love that doubtless began with Lydia’s hospitality.
Dorcas, or Tabitha (from the word for “gazelle” in Greek and in Aramaic) was a believer who lived in Joppa, and was known there for her good works and acts of charity, including the making of tunics and other garments for the widows of the church. When she died, the members of the church at Joppa sent messengers to the Apostle Peter, asking him to come to them without delay. On his arrival in the upper room where Dorcas had been laid, he “knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, arise'” (Acts 9:40), whereupon she was restored to life. This was the first such miracle by one of the apostles, and because of it “many believed in the Lord”. In the Acts of the Apostles Dorcas is called a “disciple” in a feminine form of the word that in the New Testament is applied only to her. Dorcas Societies, which provide clothing and other material needs for the poor, are named for her. The original society was founded in Douglas, Isle of Man in 1834 in thanksgiving for deliverance from a cholera outbreak, and to replace the bedding and clothing of the poor that had been destroyed as part of the effort to prevent an epidemic.
Phoebe, whose name means “bright” or “radiant”, was a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, the eastern seaport of Corinth. The word diakonos may be translated deacon (or in some versions of the Bible, deaconess), though it may also be translated “helper” or “patron”, given that Saint Paul applies the word to himself in 2 Corinthians (11:23) and in Colossians (1:23,25) and does not mean that he is himself a deacon. In his letter to the Romans, Paul commends Phoebe to the church at Rome, that they might “welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many, and of myself as well” (16:1,2). Some consider the application of the word diakonos to Phoebe, along with 1 Timothy 3:11 (which in Greek reads, “and also the women”, rather than “their [deacons’] wives” as in a number of English translations), evidence that the early Church ordained women to the same diaconate to which men were ordained.
Whether or not this be the case, Pliny the Younger attests to the existence of deaconesses in the church in Bithynia in the second century, and documents of the late third and fourth centuries (including the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions) describe the ministry and duties of deaconesses, including assisting at the baptism of women and visiting and ministering to the sick. The ministry disappeared in the West and declined in the East for a number of centuries, but was revived in the Lutheran Church in the nineteenth century, when Pastor Theodor Fliedner opened the first deaconess motherhouse in Kaiserwerth on the Rhine. At the request of a local pastor, Fliedner brought four deaconesses to American in 1849 to work in the Pittsburgh Infirmary. In following decades, other deaconess communities were founded in Lutheran population centers both in America and in Europe. In 1862 Elizabeth Catherine Ferard was licensed as a deaconess by the Bishop of London, thus becoming the first Anglican deaconess. From a deaconess community in London, deaconesses were eventually introduced into many Anglican Churches. The office of deaconess has disappeared in those Anglican Churches that ordain women to the diaconate, but the office has been maintained as a commissioned or consecrated lay ministry for women in a number of traditional Anglican Churches, including the Reformed Episcopal Church (now a subjurisdiction within the Anglican Church in North America) and the Anglican Province in America.
Almighty God, you inspired your servants Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe to support and sustain your church by their deeds of generous love: Open our hearts to hear you, conform our will to love you, and strengthen our hands to serve you; for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Collect is taken from the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, Philip H. Pfatteicher.
The icon of Saint Lydia is from the website of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery and is under copyright.
The icon of Saint Tabitha is courtesy of www.eikonografos.com and is used with permission.
Propers for the commemoration of Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe may be found on the Lectionary Page website.