Identity and the Resurrection of Christ

There is a strange moment described in the gospels regarding the resurrection of Christ (in fact, there are several such moments). When Mary Magdalen first encounters the risen Lord, we are told that she “took Him for the gardener.”

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:11–16 ESV)

It is an encounter that some seek to explain as a product of Mary Magdalen’s grief. She is so grief-stricken that she fails to recognize the risen Christ. I think this is incorrect. A second example underscores what is taking place. St. Luke shares the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who encounter the risen Lord. They do not recognize Him throughout the journey – until they sit at table with Him:

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”(Luke 24:28–32 ESV)

In this case, there can be no notion of a grief-stricken lack of recognition. Indeed, their conversation with the risen Lord as they walk along causes their hearts to “burn” within them. Their recognition of Christ in the context of the breaking of bread is described as their eyes being “opened.”

This issue of recognition weaves in and out of the resurrection appearances. It would seem that there is something more than the merely “objective” about the resurrected Christ. I have pondered this over the years. There is no “hiding” or “change” going on in Christ – He is not disguising Himself. Rather, the change seems to be a matter that is taking place in those who are encountering Him. For St. Mary Magdalen, the change takes place when Christ speaks her name. I think of this as Mary “coming to herself.” It is beyond grief and shame and is the recovery of the truly personal. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus we see something extraordinary – an extended walk and conversation, where their hearts are “burning,” and yet recognition has not occurred. Instead, it is in the breaking of bread (a Eucharistic reference, “took the bread, blessed, broke, and gave”) that their “eyes were opened.”

The encounter with the risen Lord is personal and eucharistic. I think that this is made known in the resurrection encounters but that it also reveals the truth about our present encounters with one another. As such, it has something to say about the nature and truth of our identities. By and large, we do not know nearly as much as we think we know.

If you spend time with small children, you may have noticed a lack of self-awareness that is common. A child runs through a crowded room, having shed a diaper. Utterly naked, the tiny streaker laughs with joy to a parent’s dismay. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they are naked and not ashamed. There are many other elements that reveal their lack of self-awareness. I see in our congregation some Sundays, children playing in the floor. Frequently, their voices are lifted too loudly and find a quiet rebuke from a parent. I’ve heard parents saying, “Use your inside voice!” and “Whisper!” By the same token, I’ve seen slightly older children singing along with the Creed in tones loud enough to rise above the choir.

Such behaviors exhibit a lack of self-awareness, which, in truth, is a lack of shame. Our socialization, acquired slowly, and not without pain, is the acquisition of various shaming moments that instruct us on approved behaviors in the presence of others. Much of what we think of as our “identity” (which will shift and change somewhat in various settings) are the constructs we have managed to assemble over time, while our true self remains hidden.

I can remember at least twice in my life when I fell under the “spell” of an influential personality. My public persona shifted and took on colorings that I “borrowed.” I blush when I remember these now and see what was taking place. Likely, similar things have happened along and along without my noticing (such was their subtlety). There is within me, however, some very quiet memory of a time before such borrowings. There are a very few things I can see through a young child’s eyes – their magic still shines.

At what must have been age 4, my mother taught me how to take the city bus into downtown in order to get to my kindergarten (at a downtown Church). The first time, with a dime(!) in my pocket to pay for the bus, and a second one tied up in a handkerchief and stuffed in the other pocket, I made my way onto the bus while my mother looked on. I paid the driver and found my seat. My mother followed in her car to reassure me that all was well. I later repeated the operation for my ride home. I have no remembrance of fear, or any particular self-awareness. But I remember the bus, the seats, the passengers, the windows, and the unbridled wonder of it all.

What was my identity in that moment?

The same identity as I have today – though it seems largely inaccessible – hidden under layers of acquired experiences with their successes and failures.

Who does Jesus know?

St. Paul wrote, I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Ga. 2:20) The “I” who now lives in the flesh is St. Paul, the true St. Paul. It is St. Paul without shame or fear (as we pray in the Liturgy). It is the gift of God, perhaps last seen mirrored in the innocence of a child, but then made manifest and glorified. 

We are promised an identity – a new name – something St. Paul describes as “hidden with Christ in God.” It is made known as we behold Christ face-to-face. There, we will see who we are, and have always been, waiting to be revealed in the Last Day. We will know, in that moment, the meaning of the word “personal,” just as we will see, at last, the meaning of the Eucharist.

At present, we see glimpses, teasing at the edge of recognition, as our hearts burn within us.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Photo: With my father – age 5

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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38 responses to “Identity and the Resurrection of Christ”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father,
    Some of those childhood memories seem to have the power of indelible grace upon our inner (and most genuine) sense of person. It reminds me of St Sophrony’s first experience of God’s personal Uncrrated Light as a baby-toddler.
    There’s many children who our vouchsafed comparable experiences – especially those who are blessed to have childhood sacramental (even confessional) life – and this can act as a spiritual “Ariadne’s mite” leading them back from sin later on in life.
    But God sure has ways and means way beyond our grasp to save us!

  2. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father! (And for your memories.)

    I frequently think of the Resurrection appearances as a kind of “spiritual” body, or maybe a transfigured body. Something that reflects His changed state. But don’t they have a sort of dream quality? As in, I have dreamed of my father, only he didn’t look like my Dad, but it was him. The “knowing” is not just in the appearance but something else, something more.

    Regarding shame. That lack of shame you describe near the end of this article, I associate with prayer. I am thinking that this is what love does. It’s like it doesn’t matter what stupid thing I’ve done, I can still trust God, because I feel that love in prayer. My most shameful moments (doesn’t matter why or how — some stupid thing I did, or some embarrassing moment that wasn’t necessarily something sinful on my part) drop the shame away like peeling off a bandaid and saying, “Let’s see what really under here” to address it.

    I dunno, feeling my way … Christ is risen! 🙂

  3. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I love the pic with your dad. By 5 you must have been an accomplished bus rider!
    It is so heartwarming, as you note, to hear children unabashedly belting out the creed.
    As I child I can recall singing in church (not the creed) but church hymns. I sang songs such as “bringing in the sheaves,”… I heard and sang “sheep!” I thank God for my parents taking me to church. Much that I learned was misinformed, but I did learn to trust Jesus even then…later falling away, eventually coming back. And Emmaus road experiences still occur today, for me especially at the chalice and in prayer.
    Thank our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ for this burning and yearning.

  4. Andrew Avatar

    The unbridled innocence and wonder of a child is a thing to behold. I watch my children at times and am humbled by their unmitigated joy and wonder at the simple things of life. I long sometimes for a return, a chance to start over. But also realize that that state isn’t yet ‘perfect’ either. Even Jesus ‘learned obedience through what He suffered”. Trying to learn how to grasp the tension, to both ‘become like a little child’ and ‘ grow up in all things into Him who is the head…”. Feels like a paradox in some ways.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed – the resurrection is far more than a return to childhood innocence – though that innocence has an echo of paradise within it. As adults, we often labor and put great effort into the “identities” that we construct – including the ones that we imagine to be “righteous.” St. Paul’s admonition towards self-emptying seems to be the proper route – a way that we learn that “who I am” is gifted to us by God rather than self-created.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The name my parents gave me at birth became and remains a source of shame. Just prior to my first marriage I changed it legally to Michael. In honor of the Archangel Michael.

    My new name remains unsullied by the shame of my old name.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Interesting. When I was a child, my next-door neighbor was also named “Steve.” He was a year older and much bigger. He came to be known as “Big Steve,” while I was “Little Steve.” When I was 10, he moved away, taking my “Little” away, along with his “Big.” I was relieved. “Little” had elements of shame for me, for a variety of reasons. The forces that shape our identities (particularly the false ones) are manifold and far more complex than we imagine. I notice (for one small example) that when I’m trapped in a false identity, I do not breathe very well (short and shallow breaths). I know I’m on a healthy path when my breathing becomes more natural.

    We all await our final name – I think it will come of such an impact of recognition that we will wonder how we had not known it always.

  8. Tom J. Avatar
    Tom J.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for pointing out that there was something out of the ordinary going on with our Lord’s resurrected appearance. Even one of his appearances in Galilee was similar: “Hey, try your net on the other side.” says the stranger. He can appear in a locked room and simultaneously be solid enough to touch. Definitely out of the ordinary.

    I hope that when I find out my true name I will learn His. The pronunciation of YHWH is still a debated mystery, and I agree with those who think “Yahweh” is wrong.

  9. Simon Avatar

    I think of the identity God has gifted us with as ‘treasure that is hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.’ I take the ‘hiding of the treasure’ to mean that the mystery of identity remains a mystery. It is as if the mystery of one’s identity in God is an intimacy to be guarded like one might guard intimacy between a man and a woman. The communion of the saints is a communion of many mysteries: the mystery of one’s identity in God with the mystery of all other identities in God. I’m wondering about the relationship between hypostasis and mystery. It seems like they are related.

  10. Margaret Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen, thank you for this article and for your comment here above to Michael: “We all await our final name — I think it will come of such an impact of recognition that we will wonder how we had not known it always.” This is such an encouragement to my heart as I continue to force myself to do the healing work Our Lord is helping me with in my heart and soul, my very “being”. I have read both your books, most recently completing Face to Face Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, and I thank you (and I thank God) for this writing also. Glory to God for all things!

  11. Eduardo Avatar

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat, having fallen into the ground, should die, it abides alone; but if it should die, it bears much fruit.”

    What you seem to be describing is that subtle shift from the small “i” of ego to the large “I” of Self in Christ. It’s a strange thing how we begin life in this state of pure awareness and innocence and as we partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we put veils on veils. Then, it would seem that the Christian life is the successive removal of all these veils, to encounter that the activities of our life is not our Life in Christ. It’s almost like finding the Life beneath your life beyond all of the transient associations of identity, behavior, likes and dislikes, approval or condemnation, and success or failure. Thomas Merton’s “le pointe vierge” immediately comes to mind. Thank you for this timely reflection. Christ is risen!

  12. KS Avatar

    “I can remember at least twice in my life when I fell under the ‘spell’ of an influential personality. My public persona shifted and took on colorings that I ‘borrowed’.”

    I hope I’ll be forgiven for connecting this experience to high-falutin’ literary theory but the correspondence is too close to ignore. Rene Girard calls this “mimetic desire,” i.e. the universal socialization process whereby we construct our identity based on our imitation of a model (from parents when we’re children to others as we grow up). For a dozen good reasons, Girard sees our relationship to Jesus Christ as the optimal, if not indeed the only healthy, mimetic relationship an adult can have, and I think the quote from St. Paul supports this. Of course, Christians did not wait for Rene Girard to understand the importance of imitatio christi but Girard is good at describing all the other ways that imitation can go bad.

    Fr. Stephen, I wonder what you think of Girard from an Orthodox standpoint?

  13. Jeff Avatar

    I’m a little confused at this point in my life as I embark on getting some therapy for some long standing issues. I have been delving into therapy concepts (and going to a therapist) in a way I never had time for previously.
    But how to make sense of it all, especially in the context of Orthodox thought?
    True self, false identiy, personality traits, nous, passions, shame, origin story. And around it all, psychotherapy vs. the claims of Orthodoxy that true healing lies in the church.

    Any suggestions in how to sort this all out? I just ordered your book on shame, so I’ll be throwing that into the mix , too.

  14. Eric Kyte Avatar
    Eric Kyte

    Thank you Father Stephen
    A beautiful reflection
    It put me in mind of a story I sometimes tell in pastoral work with those who have suffered trauma in their earlier years, that when the angel with flashing sword guards the gate to The Garden, they are protecting our true identity
    For some of us, if we knew it ahead of time, Lord knows what we’d do.

    Of course, it’s within the Garden we meet the Gardener


  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m only a little familiar with Girard. He’s interesting – though the little I’ve read seems to me that it would have benefitted by contemplating the role of shame in the dynamic. But, that’s just my take.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Generally, I would say that you don’t have to make sense of it all. Just take the small steps forward that seem to work. On the whole, therapists have “models” that help guide their work. The models are useful when they work – but they should not be taken as explanations of how things are – the same things could be understood by using other models.

    Healing is healing. If therapy provides some relief – well and good. The depths of the Church’s healing are very much a matter of a lifetime. Do what works and let the explanations come as they will.

    A key difference will be that a secular account of our identity will not be rooted in “who we are in Christ – that is – at present – hidden from us.” It will seek some other way to speak about identity.

    Secular psychology seeks to make us well (healthy and functioning). Orthodox theology seeks to set us on the path to becoming truly Real (as we are revealed in the image and likeness of Christ). Nevertheless, there are plenty of places where they overlap.

  17. Eric Kyte Avatar
    Eric Kyte

    “Secular psychology seeks to make us well (healthy and functioning). Orthodox theology seeks to set us on the path to becoming truly Real (as we are revealed in the image and likeness of Christ). “


  18. Simon Avatar

    “We must keep going in the direction that we are now headed.” (Phil. 3:16, CEB)

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, are secular identities, no matter how well they function and how healthy they seem still a bit of a mask as we search for deeper reality? I ask because secular realities do not seem very deep to me.
    My father was a successful public health officer and MD, yet always seemed a bit lost. Yet I have a snap shot I took of him staring out over the Flint Hills here in KS. The Flint Hills is just that, a large area of rock hills with the soil so thin it does not support farming nor the settlement that comes with it. It is grass land good for fattening beef cattle.
    Because of that it retains the feel and the presence of a more God-made land.
    In the picture I can see my Dad in the big, black cowboy hat he always wore, at home and at peace yet questing wide and deep at the same time. Removed from the secular, the man made. Looking for his true name.
    In the world he was often an angry, depressed man despite functioning at a high level.
    In an Orthodox world he might have gone to a monastery and found it by the Mercy of God.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re right – secular identities, no matter how well they function nor how healthy they may seem – are still a bit of a mask.

    There is, I think, a question of goodness that is placed before each of us. No everyone is in place to hear (much less understand) the fullness of Orthodox Christianity. In our present world – that opportunity can be overlooked, or never encountered. There is, nonetheless, the goodness which God has placed within each of us. There is a heart-call to that goodness. It matters, on the level of the soul, what we do with that goodness.

    Sometimes such goodness is little more than making a decision to “give a drink of water to one of these little ones…” (Matt. 10:42) still has a reward from God. And such actions are often hidden from the eyes of others. It’s one of the many reasons we do not judge – we utterly lack the information required to make a judgment.

    But, sometimes, we know something of the heart of another – we see the “cup of cold water” within them and we see it shared.

    The sacramental life is normative in the path of salvation. But God is not willing that any should perish but that all should be saved. Should such salvation come, it will be because of the goodness and mercy of God. That is where I put my attention.

    As for you and me, we need to pay attention to the cup of cold water that God has placed in our hands at this moment – and to share it generously as we can. We do not have everything. But what we have – is enough – because God is more than enough.

  21. Joyce Avatar

    Father bless.

    I came to a better understanding of who I am socially after being enveloped in a small group that consistently told me, “You are loved no matter what, and you belong.” However, being well-adjusted does not equate to being “healed.” I still experience moments of emotional dysregulation, and during those times, I need someone to help me get back to my true self.

    I have experienced Orthodox communities that are excellent at providing help to others like me, and those that are not as effective. The communities that are good at it seem to have a “critical mass” of older adults who have themselves traveled paths of weakness. They have walked with Christ, pondering the meaning of their brokenness. They have sat with Him in their grief, becoming aware of Him, giving thanks for all things, and consequently, remembering who they were. They understand that their lives are intertwined with mine, and excluding any part of their own lives out of shame or fear is rarely life-giving.

    Due to the love and presence of these elders, when I see another person struggling with emotional dysregulation or dissociation, I’m more apt to realize that the person who has lost sight of themselves is, in a real sense, me. It’s our life, truly the Body of Christ, and a great mystery that I’ve only seen in its fullness in Orthodoxy. I was a western Christian for a long time, but the kind of wholeness that I’ve experienced in Orthodoxy is unparalleled.

    On the other hand, the Orthodox Church has proven to be the One True Church because my healing is not dependent on the health of those who attend. The greatest restoration to my true self happened to occur in what most people would call a pretty dysfunctional Orthodox Church community. It just took me a while to “see”.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. You make me glad to be an old man!

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    This world tries to engage our will, emotions and energy on the task of creating a series of false “identities” and the personas that go with them to distract us from who we really are: a unique image of God.
    Father Stephen puts it this way in his book reflecting on a Macarian homily:
    There is within us the very image of God,
    “life and the kingdom…..the treasuries of
    grace.” If shame is a part of our answer to
    the question ‘How do I feel about who
    I am.’ this path reminds us that the truth
    of who I am is not found on the surface p.25
    The task of getting deep enough, beyond the false images and the shame seems to begin with repentance as in Mt 4:17 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
    Having just turned 75, I no longer want to worship false images of either my self or God.
    Lord, forgive me a sinner.

  24. Timmy Avatar

    Christ Is Risen!

    Fr. Stephen, is the little boy in the photo you as a child?

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father and Joyce,
    What both of you have revealed in your writings is the life of Christ embodied. There is such depth in such a life that modern, science-based psychology cannot plumb. Life in Christ heals. The Body of Christ, the Orthodox Church, is not an imitation of Christ but is the Real Deal. There is much to learn as an Orthodox Christian, and much of that learning involves shedding the secularized version/false depiction of one’s life, and identity, and learning what ‘putting on Christ’ means.

    Thank you both for your edifying words.

  26. Dory Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    If will be nice to be received by Christ as a person. So much of our society reduce us to roles like “consumer” and “client”: faceless buckets of wants and symptoms whose past and present and future don’t matter beyond the strictly scripted interaction which aims to hurry us towards closing a ticket, closing a sale and closing a case and nothing more. To be seen as a unique person, to slow down and spend time in communion, is something we desperately yearn for.

    Random thought: these days, if a parent puts a 10 year old on the bus by themselves to ride through the city, the authorities would come and investigate for abuse.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It was a very different world then, no doubt.

  28. Timmy Avatar

    I thought so. Your eyes gave it away ; )

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. Of course, good observation will also reveal that I have my father’s ears…still do.

  30. Timmy Avatar

    Matching ears, indeed : )

    I just saw this line at the bottom the article: “Photo: With my father – age 5”. Was that added after the article was first posted, or did I miss it the first time around?

  31. joy cox Avatar
    joy cox

    This morning I read the encounter between Joshua and a man with a sword in his hand (Joshua 5:13-15). Joshua asked if he was with him or against him and clearly didn’t recognize him until the man replied, “…’as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ “ The rest of the verse reads, “And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and said to Him, ‘What does my Lord say to His servant?’ “

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have known worship,i.e., communion with the living God in Spirit and Truth, in 4 places in my life: inwardly in prayer and repentance; in a local Friends meeting; in the Native American Methodist congregation that my wife was attending when we met; several Orthodox parishes.
    In each case I have been lifted beyond shame and my own sin through prayer with/by others. My “identity” in each case was more “me” while at the same time clearly “me” connected to the person of Jesus Christ and the others.

  33. Father Nicholas Young Avatar
    Father Nicholas Young

    The ‘idea’ of one’s own identity is fascinating. I struggle to say sincerely that my identity is Orthodox Christian, for instance. That, in day-to-day practical terms does not work, since I am also a Canadian and have to deal with my fellows and their sensibilities which are formed outside of Orthodoxy. In other words, at bottom I am Orthodox, but I live in a culture that is not , and choose to modify my behaviour to be able to socialize ‘normally’ with the heterodox. We adopt layers of identity, much depending on the society where we live. The question becomes: ‘How much do I hold back from my basic or true idenity to be social?’ As a for-instance, if I go about saying ‘Christ is Risen!’ most of the time I’m guessing the phrase would be ignored. So most of the time I don’t bother. Does this mean that in some way I am denying my own identity? Or hiding it? Christ is Risen!

  34. Alan Avatar

    Joyce, your comment:
    “The communities that are good at it seem to have a “critical mass” of older adults who have themselves traveled paths of weakness. They have walked with Christ, pondering the meaning of their brokenness. They have sat with Him in their grief, becoming aware of Him, giving thanks for all things, and consequently, remembering who they were. They understand that their lives are intertwined with mine, and excluding any part of their own lives out of shame or fear is rarely life-giving.”

    This is so beautiful, glorious, and quite profound. Thank you very much for sharing this!

  35. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Nicholas,

    My understanding of the terms (in this context) is that personality is what results from interactions with others, whereas identity is your core self. Both signify who we are, but describe different aspects.

    For comparison, an atom interacts with other atoms, sometimes gaining and losing electrons, so that it can be a different ion, depending on which other atoms it has bonded to. Its nucleus–at least for non-radioactive elements–remains constant, and thus it is always the same element at its core.

    If I am understanding the usage correctly, then, being Orthodox is not part of your core identity but of your relationship with the Three Persons (and perhaps the Church). One cannot, I believe, be Orthodox in isolation.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Indeed He is Risen! What cannot be totally ignored is the Joy in your heart because you know the Truth.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, we are only isolated if we cut ourselves off from God. Consider the Holy Hermits like St. Mary of Egypt or the Stylites.

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