Today has been the liturgical anniversary of the execution of Mother Maria of Paris in a gas chamber at the Ravensbrück concentration camp on Holy Saturday 1945. Her remarkable theological insights into motherhood as a basic aspect of the divine image in each of us came to mind vividly for me this year during the services surrounding Christ’s death and burial. My main purpose here is to summarize this theology of hers for you, but I have two brief narratives first that I hope might give it some meaningful context: the first is my own story from these past few days and the second is a very brief account of Mother Maria’s own life.
As I write, our family of five is in the final hours of anticipation before Pascha (Easter)—having been to church nine times since last Sunday morning, with a few of these times of worship being three or more hours long. We’ll get into the car as a whole family at 9:30 pm and arrive back home sometime around 2:00 am [note after the fact: we got home at 5:30 am]. Due to work schedules and some colds, our 14-year old son is the only member of the family who has been to every service. Having stood for many hours as an altar server in a thick embroidered robe while holding liturgical fans and heavy brass candlesticks, he is excited for the service as well as the nighttime ultimate frisbee game being planned by the young folks for immediately afterward in the wee hours of the morning.
These last hours before the great celebration are supposed to be silent and restful, but some of them are taken up with semi-elaborate preparations for our food basket of meats, dairy treats, baked goods, and a few drinks. While cooking, my children play the Easter hymns of their American Evangelical family and friends, with Andrew Peterson’s “Resurrection Letters, Volume I” being a favorite: “He took one breath / And put death to death.” I love Peterson as well, but it is a joy when the songs move on to some favorites from Les Misérables. It’s all good preparation for a hundred repetitions tonight of “Indeed, He is risen!” and as many intonations of “Trampling down death by death.”
For me, this year, our afternoon of rest includes a little blogging as my sad approximation of silence. (I was also minimally helpful by making PB&J sandwiches for everyone and taking the two youngest kids and the dog on a long walk to the park with a romp in the creek on the way home.)
In this morning’s service, the last before Pascha, we experienced an extended embodiment of “joyful sorrow.” Many saints have used this phrase—also given as “bright sadness” or other variations—to express the awareness of God’s intimate presence within our hearts in this fallen world. In the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday morning, we gather close around the tomb of Christ where we have laid him to rest the day before after passing one-by-one beneath the shroud that bears his image. We move multiple times between quiet waiting with Christ’s dead body to exuberant anticipation and even outright celebration of his resurrection. It’s a long and overwhelming liturgy after a week of services that start with a focus on the Bridegroom (awaited with lamps kept burning and depicted as the one who will soon stand before the Roman soldiers, robed in purple, given a reed for a staff and crowned with thorns) and through Christ’s anointing by Mary of Bethany to his final teaching, betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and burial. All of this is enacted and sung with multiple processions and a host of characters as we place the words of Christ, his mother, Judas, the wise thief and many others in our own mouths, invited into the events as participants from virtually every standpoint. This is all as dramatic as any Broadway musical or Italian opera with the scheming of Jewish and Roman rulers, the elated and angry voices of crowds and the tears of bitterly confused friends and a heart-stricken mother.
It all slows down as Christ places his mother and his beloved disciple into each other’s care and gives up his spirit. His mother and youngest disciple are helped by two powerful men who show up to provide a shroud and a hasty entombment for their dead Lord. What these four completed with such haste before the arrival of the Sabbath, we do slowly over two days. We try to attend to Christ’s death as those with him at first were not permitted to do. In one of the homilies connected to this yesterday, my priest noted that the heart and eyes and words of motherhood are the best way to understand what takes place on the cross. My priest’s applications were helpfully simple. If you have a mother living still, call her up or visit. If your mother has passed away, pray with her as she rests in God.
This homily—along with the many hymns in the voices of Mary and Christ addressing each other—all reminded me vividly of a theological insight that I read about in the past year from the works of Mother Maria (Elizaveta) Skobtsova (1891–1945). This beloved saint lost two husbands and three children to death and separation before taking vows as a nun and being sent to a concentration camp by Nazi’s for sheltering Jewish families and finally giving up her own life in theplace of another woman in the camp.
Born into an aristocratic Russian family, Elizaveta married a Bolshevik revolutionary. This tumultuous marriage ended within a few years and not long after the birth of a daughter. (Her first husband subsequently converted to Russian Catholicism and became a Russian Catholic Priest.) Elizaveta moved with her daughter to the south where her writing and religious devotion increased. She also maintained her political labors. Furious at Leon Trotsky for closing the Socialist-Revolutionary Party Congress, Elizaveta planned his assassination, but was talked out of this by colleagues, who sent her to Anapa in Southern Russia.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, she was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. When the anti-communist White Army took control of Anapa, the mayor fled and she became mayor of the town. The White Army put her on trial for being a Bolshevik. However, the judge was a former teacher of hers, Daniel Skobtsov, and she was acquitted. She and this former teacher soon fell in love and were married. As the political tide turned again, Elizaveta and her family fled the country, taking her mother with them. Elizaveta was now pregnant with her second child. Traveling through Georgia where a son was born and Yugoslavia where she had a second daughter, she and her family eventually settled in Paris.
As Elizaveta dedicated herself to theological studies and social work and faced the loss of her youngest child to influenza as well as the departure of her oldest to boarding school, her second marriage increasingly fell apart. Her husband eventually moved away with her son, and Elizaveta’s bishop recommended that she take monastic vows. With her husband’s blessing, she obtained an ecclesiastical divorce and took the religious name “Maria.” Her first confessor was Father Sergei Bulgakov. The remaining years of her life were given largely to helping the most destitute in Paris until her arrest for sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime. Shortly after being moved to her second concentration camp, Maria was killed in a gas chamber on a Holy Saturday in her church calendar. On January 16, 2004, Mother Maria was canonized a saint in the Orthodox Church, and her theological writings as well as her life continue to inspire many
A central reflection in her theological work was the way in which motherhood bound Mary inexorably to Christ’s sufferings. Mothers give life by giving a place within their bodies to their children, and this elemental bond only deepens into ongoing personal bonds after birth. What their children experience is a continuing part of the life of the mother in a way over which the mother has no real choice or control. Maria wrote that “the Sonship of Christ is simultaneously a sonship not only in regard to God but also in regard to the Mother of God,” and this creates a fundamental collaboration between Mary’s involuntary suffering and the voluntary suffering of Christ upon the cross. Extending this participation by Mary in Christ’s salvific suffering on the cross to the commands of Christ and the Apostle Paul that every one of us must take up our own cross and follow Christ, Maria concluded that this bond of motherhood in suffering is an aspect of the universal human experience.
We are called to voluntarily suffer with Christ and his siblings as Christ did in obedience to His Father, but our suffering with Christ and others is also grounded in the involuntary suffering of Mary as the mother of God. In fact, Maria ultimately understands our humanity in the image of God as depending upon our relationship to God as both a son and a mother.
Expounding this theology, Kateřina Bauerová writes:
Mother Maria speaks of a human being as a biune image of God, where every human being is an icon of ‘mother and son’, thus the human soul combines the images of the Mother of God and the Son of God. It is according to these two symbolic archetypes that we spiritually orient our lives. To live out of the filial essence of one’s soul means to carry one’s own cross, while the mother in us helps others to carry their crosses and allows her heart to be pierced by the sword of pain. [From “Motherhood as a Space for the Other: A Dialogue between Mother Maria Skobtsova and Hélène Cixous” in Feminist Theology, volume 26.2, 2018.]
To be human and show forth the image of God, each of us must ultimately become mothers who give from our own space and life to all others and who recognize that we are bound together as one body. Rowan Williams dedicates an entire chapter of his recent book on Orthodox Christian theology to Mother Maria and points out that for her sin means the denial of our connection with the pain of others:
This profound solidarity with human flesh and materiality is inexorably the cause of unchosen suffering. …As Mother Maria expresses it, this has to do with an ethic that is not about effort or even “spiritual” attainment, not about duty or the willing assumption of some extra burden: the Christian’s response to the pain of another is as instinctive and non-negotiable as the mother’s involvement in the child’s suffering. And in this light, sin becomes a refusal to be touched by the pain of others. This certainly makes sin omnipresent in the world of self-protection; if sin is the refusal of God, the refusal of the agony of humans made in God’s image must be sinful, and as soon as it is defined in such terms we recognize sin’s universality and power over us as never before and understand why love is holy folly. [From pages 220 to 221 of Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition.]
There is much more to share of course, but I had better post this and get myself out the door to celebrate Christ’s conquering of death by death. Mother Maria, pray for us, that we each might be strengthened as mothers and sons of God.
Note: Below is a reproduction of an icon by Sister Joanna (born Julia Reitlinger, 1898–1988), a nun and icon-writer who was also a spiritual daughter of Sergei Bulgakov and a friend of Mother Maria. This icon was painted by Sister Joanna on the basis of Mother Maria’s concept created during her stay in the concentration camp. Mother Maria created this icon in the harsh conditions of the concentration camp in the winter of 1944–1945. She embroidered it according to her own particular style. Although the original was not preserved, a friend of hers from the camp remembered it. This reproduction was by the iconographer S. A. Raevsky-Otsup. This icon might be a free rendering of the eighteenth century icon known as “Do Not Weep for Me Mother.” However, Mother Maria was also fascinated by Marcele Lenoir’s image, “God’s Mother in Glory” (1922–1923), which she encountered on a visit to the Institute Catholique in Toulouse in 1931.