Ancient Answers

Women of Freedom

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I love the Gospel stories of the women who went to the tomb of Christ, especially the version in Mark’s Gospel (16:1-8). There is something almost comic about the women walking to the tomb, to anoint the body of Christ, and wondering who would roll the stone away from the tomb. Clearly they won’t be able to do it, and there are no men that they can count on. The men, the male disciples of Christ, are hiding, they are nowhere to be seen! But despite the impossible task that lies ahead of them, the women keep walking. They don’t let their minds get in the way of what their heart’s devotion urges them to do. Their minds obeyed their hearts. The words of doubt and argument were silenced and their action spoke. Their actions became prayer! 

(This painting appears to be by Herschel Pollard.)

Christians find it much easier to say, “I’ll pray for you,” than to reach out with tangible action and help someone in need and emotional support. Such ‘prayers’ count for little in the eyes of God. God is looking for Christians who walk to serve Christ, to anoint his ‘body’ wherever there is pain and need. Do not let the seeming impossibility of the task or your political preferences stop you from finding the tomb of Christ! The stone will be rolled for you! Trust that it will be. And in that trust is freedom. In their obedience to their duty to the ‘dead’ body of Christ, the women were the freest on the planet.

Søren Kierkegaard in one of his journals wrote:

The Christian is: the page of absolute majesty.

The only art is to worship absolutely – not in words and nonsense, in intricate prose or sonorous verse, but in acts of absolute obedience….to worship God absolutely in everything, always joyful, grateful, smiling.

But the fact is that the concept of the absolute and the image of absolute majesty have long since disappeared from Christendom. People have degraded God, drawn him down into the relativities and wretchedness of finite ends and purposes – foisted upon God the idea that world history is a matter of importance for him.

No, heavenly majesty is not majesty of this sort. The existence of a single Christian, if one does exist, concerns God more than all world-historical monarchies and empires and more than all the noise that we human beings have come up with and to which we attribute importance.

As always, Kierkegaard provokes radical thinking. He always used the word ‘Christendom’, as here, in a highly derogatory sense. For him, Christianity should have never become Christendom, a social-political entity marching through history hand in hand with empires and kings of all stripes. True Christian faith is obedience – not to church rules and regulations, which are prime products of Christendom – but obedience to one and one only: Jesus Christ. 

Orthodoxy in its true essence is not about rules and regulations; it is not the church as handmaid to earthly rulers. No, the real essence of Orthodoxy is freedom – freedom to experience God and the mystery of Christ in Liturgy, in sacraments, in prayer, in icons, in sacred music and chant, in the beauty of worship and earthly majesty. Freedom – not rules, not regulations, not bondage to history and old empires and ancient languages and cultural imperialism. And yet it is precisely bondage to the past that characterizes most Orthodox visions in the 21st century. For some people it works, for others it is a reason to escape and find freedom elsewhere. Tragic, because true Orthodox vision is all about freedom.

And in that vision is the only freedom that is worthy of the name freedom, and the only freedom that truly liberates human beings from all the lies – the brutal lies – of history and the rulers and powers of today. The tragedy is that very rarely do Orthodox people receive from their church leaders this message of ultimate freedom. So we construct myths of our own vainglory. 

Father Alexander Schmemann was one of the most prophetic Orthodox voices of the 20th century. He wrote this in his journal on February 1977:

I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this “Orthodoxism,” of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It literally obscures Christ, pushes him into the background.

Fr. Alexander at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.

Father Alexander Schmemann was at his best during the Paschal season, the season we are in now. And he perhaps sometimes saw himself like one of the myrrh-bearing women, going with absolute trust to an encounter with Christ. Those amazing women did not know they would meet the risen Christ; they didn’t even know how they would open the tomb to go in and anoint the body of their Lord. But they went, in beautiful obedience, in obedience to freedom! Sounds like a paradox? Obedience to freedom? Aren’t freedom and obedience opposites? Not when Jesus Christ is the source of the freedom and the one who receives the obedience. In Jesus Christ obedience becomes freedom. Those precious women were the freest people on the planet when they walked to the tomb.

Am I speaking nonsense? According to a Princeton University study quoted in Harper’s magazine, Facebook users who are over 65 are SEVEN times more likely to share fake news stories than Facebook users who are between 18 and 29. No wonder Donald Trump was elected president in 2016! Just think how easily people believe stuff that do not liberate their spirit, and how difficult it is to trust that Jesus can lead people to a life of true freedom in the beauty of obedience. The myrrh-bearing women thought they were going to anoint a dead body and they found life – life full of divine beauty and energy. We have been given life – life of divine beauty and energy – and have turned it into a dead relic. I want to be one of those women. Don’t you?

CHRIST IS RISEN! 

3 thoughts on “Women of Freedom

  1. I like the whole thrust of your argument that the Christian life is freedom – “freedom to experience God and the mystery of Christ in Liturgy, in sacraments, in prayer, in icons, in sacred music and chant, in the beauty of worship and earthly majesty”.

    A very powerful painting, too! Do you know who painted it?

    Best wishes,
    Michael

    • Hello, Michael. It’s been a while. Thank you for checking my website even though I haven’t been putting much on it. I’ve been busy with setting up our church’s new website. I found the painting with a Google search a few years back and saved it on my computer. At that time I saw no name to whom the painting was attributed. Your question intrigued me, so I did a new Google search on “women at the tomb of Jesus” and found it again linked to a few different websites, including another blogger who used it like I did without any attribution. But there is a website that attributes it to a Herschel Pollard – https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-magdalene-discovering-the-empty-tomb-herschel-pollard.html. So probably I should attribute it to him. I don’t know if I’m breaking any copyright in using it, now that I’ve identified the artist. I’m glad you asked. Be well, my friend.

      • Yes, I found it. Thank you! Likewise have been otherwise occupied so haven’t been reading other posts much. But I always enjoy reading what you post, so do persevere if you can find the time! I don’t know about you, but I find I learn so much through the activity of putting feelings and ideas into words, so there is always a personal benefit. Best wishes to you, Michael

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