Freedom in the Spirit

February 28, 2005

Some years ago, I visited a newly consecrated Greek Orthodox church and was given a tour by the priest. We stopped in front of a large mosaic depicting the risen Christ standing on the battered-down doors of hell.

He is extending his hands to a man and a woman, representing Adam and Eve, who seem to be emerging from rectangular tombs looking rather surprised. Locks and chains, symbols of bondage, float mysteriously in a vast black space below the figures. The priest drew my attention to Christ’s hands, saying: “This is not simply an affectionate hand clasp.” And indeed it is not!

Christ has Adam and Eve by the wrists and is forcefully yanking them out of their tombs into the freedom of the resurrection. Every time I see variations of this icon, I am put in mind of the priest’s observation.

Doubtless Adam and Eve experience a certain kind of security while safely within the confinement of their tombs. They know the boundaries of their enclosure. Then, suddenly, they are pulled free and find themselves in an open space seemingly without limits. Their wide iconic eyes suggest not only surprise but uncertainty and confusion. This says to me that freedom in the Spirit, which is the gift of the risen Christ, is not always a gentle or immediately welcome experience.

Each one of us lives with particular assumptions and certitudes that allow us to construct and arrange patterns of meaning and self-understanding. What we often do not realize is that these elements that make us feel safe and secure also can be a form of bondage and constriction, which is not characteristic of the resurrection life.
Here I am put in mind of an Easter poem by George Herbert entitled The Dawning.

Arise sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
“Christ’s resurrection thine may be:
Do not by hanging down break from the hand,
Which as it riseth, raiseth thee.”

Experiencing the full force of Christ’s deathless love is not without consequence. This was made very clear to the apostle Paul, who described himself as zealous in his adherence to the traditions and practices of his religion. His encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus turned his world upside down. Everything that had given meaning and direction to his life up to that point was shattered.

Blinded by this experience, he was led off, and for three days -- which must have seemed for him an eternity -- he existed in a state of unknowing and underwent a psychic death that prepared him to be pulled into a whole new realm of being and self-understanding. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul cries out in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul’s whole notion of dying and rising with Christ through baptism is clearly a reflection of his own experience of being undone by the risen Christ. He passed through the collapse of all that had given his life meaning and then, through the working of the Spirit, found himself quite literally a new creation in relationship to the risen One, and to himself.

How tragic it is when the things of religion, which are meant to draw us into the “glorious liberty of the children of God,” have the opposite effect. How tragic it is when we become imprisoned in our own notions of God’s ways without recognizing that God’s ways frequently transcend the limits of our understanding.

It is precisely at such moments of security and certitude that we most need to be grasped by the wrist and yanked into an unfamiliar space of God’s choosing. There the poverty of our limited notions is fully revealed and our undoing becomes the narrow door through which we pass to our remaking.

We are remade not according to our own design but according to the wild and mysterious imagination of Christ, which can express itself through the variations of the limbs and members that make up his risen body, the church.

To our peril do we delude ourselves into thinking that any one of us on our own has a full understanding of God’s ways or possesses the fullness of the truth that will make us free. Unfortunately, because Satan masquerades as an angel of light, as Scripture tells us, we do so delude ourselves. We need each other to enlarge our freedom because together, in all our singularities, we form the full Christ.

As we enter upon the Great Fifty Days of Easter, let us not break from the hand of the risen Christ. Rather, let us hold fast and allow ourselves to be pulled into the unsettling newness of the Resurrection.

Christ’s insistent compassion will not allow us to settle for anything less than the freedom of his own risen life. Christ’s resurrection is ours, not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the world around us.

Tagged in: Frank T. Griswold