Just over two thousand years ago two men stepped on to the wharf in the town of Philippi, a Roman colony in what is now part of Greece and Yugoslavia. Swaying a little, they did what all good Jews did on the Sabbath, they went looking for the local synagogue. Not finding one, they made for the river, a favoured gathering place of the Jewish faithful. Sure enough they found a little group of women praying. After listening for a few minutes the older of the two men stepped forward and began to talk. As he talked a seed was sown in the mind and heart of one of the listeners.
The woman was Lydia, a well-to-do business woman of independent means and the speaker was Paul. Lydia dealt with wealthy Romans and the temples, selling them the expensive purple fabric that she and her workers dyed in her smelly, out-of-town factory.
We know a little about her personal life. She was a gentile who attended synagogue worship, believed in the Jewish doctrine of one God, maybe kept some part of Jewish customs and law but had not taken the final step of conversion to Judaism. But as she listened to Paul talk about Jesus, the Son of God, Lydia felt her heart surge and dance with joy. This is what she had been seeking – a relationship with the true God.
With a speed that surprised even Paul, she asked for baptism. Such was her influence that her workers and house servants were baptised along with her. As a follow up to such impetuosity she invited Paul and his companion Silas, to be her house guests. Over the years Lydia’s house replaced the riverside place of prayer and become the house church at Philippi, an alternative (scary word!) community, a counter- cultural household and gathering space in a dominant Roman culture.
Lydia was the first European woman to become a Christian. There is nothing nameless or unknown about this mustard seed of a woman. Her conversion opened the way for others and set Paul on a path that would take him to across the known world. In his letters he names eleven more women whose stories reveal their involvement in the first years of the fledgling Church.
I wonder what Lydia would have to say to the twenty-first century Australian women I met last week at the Australian Catholic Communication Congress. This gathering, held every three years, brought together journalists, graphic designers, editors and media and communications directors from dioceses across Australia. As for me, I was just a lone ranger, there to soak up the atmosphere and maybe make a few contacts.
I did that, but I came home with much more – an experience of women and men, but women in particular, who are passionate about using their skills and talents to spread the Good News and utterly professional about how they do it.
They looked so young, so confident – articulate, well educated, open and friendly. So many of them were mums, balancing family and personal needs alongside their professional responsibilities. And flowing through them all I caught glimpses of a vibrant, and practical, spirituality. Women like this are the Lydias and Phoebes and Pricillas of our Australian twenty first century Church.
In the years since Vatican 2 older women like me have striven, often through gritted teeth, to claim full and equal membership in the Church we love. The Congress theme was ‘What Is Our Voice? I came away from the Congress knowing, for perhaps the first time, that these women had heard the same Voice as ourselves. The dreams we nurtured are in good hands.
(Read about Lydia in Acts 16:11-15, 40)
One Thursday is a Gospel reflection for the feast of the Ascension. You’ll find it on the Connexions page. Read