Lackluster and unfocused. That would not be a harsh judgment on my journey to this, my first blog post. But nevertheless, as with so many seeming paradoxes that reveal themselves when we ponder Christianity, I have derived great value and focus from a meandering journey. Less became more.
In the byways of the past decade+ of my typical and average modern life as a wife, mother, daughter, professional – as I aged, and tried to work out my comfort zones with life and death – I was increasingly soothed by the thought, inspired by St. Joanna, that in God’s goodness timelessly important things, good for our souls, really do happen to ordinary, anonymous people. Always have, always will. And though those moments will likely receive little or no worldly renown, perhaps remaining forever unknown except to the recipient, they really can be a divine, lasting gift. Anonymity is not to be shunned. Or regretted. Neither is it cause for celebration. It is simple truth that no matter whether highborn or otherwise, one’s level of notoriety eventually dwindles to naught (sometimes quite soon after we are “gone”) unless it lingers, somehow, into legend. My journey has caused me to resolve to live with an openness to the possibility of what might be small but portentous (for me) divine gifts.
This journey began without fanfare or recognition. I made a small, ordinary decision to sample a weekend women’s discussion group at a church I knew and loved. The pastor’s session wrap-up was a teaser – the next month we’d focus on a saint who we likely had never thought much about. It would be about St. Joanna. Led by – surprise! – me. I am her namesake.
At that point, all I “knew” about St. Joanna was that she was a myrrhbearer. I’d seen a couple of references to her in the New Testament, but figured that if I was to lead a half hour discussion, then I must have missed quite a bit. I felt inadequate. Father as always knew exactly what he was doing. He quickly thanked me for “volunteering.” And then I was on my own.
In the intervening month, I began what has over the years become for me a habit of meditation and prayer that I never expected to develop. It has its own distinctively sporadic yet compellingly captivating manner. It took on a shape and substance of its own. It called to me endlessly, but waited patiently for me in the interstices between the other “more important” things I really thought I just had to do first.
To prepare for my presentation to the women’s group, I had to read between the lines of Scripture – to imagine what was left unsaid about St. Joanna by the Evangelists. St. Luke, her only Scriptural champion, provided just two short references to her by name (Luke 8:1-3 & 24:1-11).
Luke 8:1-3 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
Luke 24: 1-11: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; 5 and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
Diving in, I began to list all that St. Joanna might have seen or heard as she encountered and followed Christ. Subconsciously, the rational, professional side of my brain took over; I am a lawyer, and as I considered the blank spaces between Scripture readings about her, I craved solid evidence to support my analysis of who St. Joanna might have been. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. St. Joanna was healed by Jesus, but how did that come to be? She also “provided” for Christ and His disciples, as did others, “out of their means”, but did women in those days own anything of worldly value? Since she was one of the women who followed His earthly ministry, wouldn’t she have had personal relationships with the Apostles and their families, with Christ’s mother, with Jesus himself? However did she manage that outsized experience? Eventually St. Joanna witnessed Jesus’ passion, and was with His mother and others at the foot of the cross; did she lose her faith and her nerve at that point? Hard to tell, even though she was among the myrrhbearers to whom an angel announced the Resurrection. That angel sent her with the other myrrhbearers to be evangelists to the Apostles, to be the very first to announce Christ’s resurrection; did that portend her eternal reward for steadfast faith? What would it have been like to live a life clearly touched by the Divine?
Evidence. At first it came down only to that. Cold hard evidence is touted these days as antithetical to “mere” faith, isn’t it? It’s integral to the modern holy grail of Science, after all. And isn’t Science its own religion in the modern era?
I found no hard evidence of who St. Joanna was. Circumstantial evidence – just barely. Commentary – except for the rote retelling of elusive “church Tradition” about her discovery of St. John the Baptist’s head – almost non-existent. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that anything I would share with the women in our group about St. Joanna had at least to be rooted in something objective that I could safely latch on to – and for me, that came down to what I consider timeless aspects of human nature. Would the men and women of the New Testament have been motivated by emotions alien to us moderns? I thought not. Their faith was legendary, their interpersonal relationships – perhaps not so much. Remember the mother of James and John (often called Salome) who wanted special treatment for her kids? Lord can’t my boys just sit at your right and left hands – eternally? Not nice to push your way forward in front of all the other mothers? But really – give her a break. We all get that. Even if we wouldn’t say it. Or would we?
My presentation to the women’s group was, as someone astutely observed, wholly in line with my profession, even if I hadn’t consciously intended it to be so. Offering pages upon pages of notes with citations, I dissected episode after episode of the New Testament, speculating whether St. Joanna could or would have been involved in each story, albeit as a perhaps nameless, faceless, but faith-filled onlooker. I strove to stockpile evidence of who she might have been, so that the other women could weigh that evidence and, perhaps, each come to her own verdict – a reasonable understanding of who St. Joanna was.
That month long exercise never ended. It has occupied my mind and fueled my faith for over a decade. My understanding of Scriptures and my memory of its lessons morphed over time because of it. Where I once had listened to or read a scriptural passage passively, I became an active participant in its interpretation as I looked at Scriptural passages from St. Joanna’s point of view. What would St. Joanna have been doing when the woman with the hemorrhage approached Christ through the crowd? Would she have known of the woman’s quest beforehand, perhaps have already encountered and encouraged her? There was no reason to think she would have, but every reason to think she could have. How did St. Joanna feel encountering Jairus when he thought he was losing his daughter? Did St. Joanna commiserate when Jesus told Martha to let her sister Mary do her own thing? Or did she just choose the better part, join Mary at His feet, and soak up all He had to say? Was she peeved – maybe even defeated – when she announced the divine news of the Resurrection, only to have her words considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11)?
With God’s grace I hope this blog will invite and inspire others to dig deeply into Scripture and our Christian faith in a way so many of us may never have before – by using our own emotional toolboxes as resources in an effort to understand what this blogger believes can only have been wholly human reactions to the Divine, reactions that moderns would easily recognize.
Christians of all denominations are invited to accompany me and “channel” St. Joanna. I hope you will start with me today, June 27, which is the day on which the Orthodox Christian Church annually celebrates St. Joanna’s feast day.