A better resurrection

Since my last post accompanied by the image of Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Resurrection, when I said it was one of my favourite images of the Resurrection of Jesus, I’ve been thinking it over and over, and may have changed my mind…

There’s no doubt that the image powerfully represents the triumph of the Risen Lord. It also dares to portray the actual moment of Resurrection, and so is different from the great majority of images which portray the aftermath: the empty tomb, or the women or disciples first encountering their risen Lord.

I’ve since been reading John Dominic Crossan’s latest book, Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original vision of Easter. It recounts a succession of pilgrimage visits to historic sites of the Western Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, searching for evidence of the thesis that it was the East which retained the original vision of what the Resurrection meant. It’s an attractive book, lavishly illustrated with images taken by Crossan’s photographer wife Sarah Sexton Crossan.

Whereas Western art, when it shows the moment of Resurrection at all, emphasises the individual nature of Jesus rising from the dead, Eastern iconography came to focus on the universal aspect of Resurrection: that Jesus did not rise from death alone, but brought with him the whole of humanity, all who had “died in Adam”. This idea seems to have originated from the words in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion:

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27.50-53)

So, in this typical icon of the Anastasis or Resurrection, the risen Jesus is depicted with a cross-shaped halo, enclosed in an almond-shaped mandorla representing his luminous, risen glory. He stands astride the shattered gates of Hell, beneath which the chained figure of Hades or Satan lies crushed. With his two hands, Christ reaches out and grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, the first parents of the human race, and draws them out of their graves and into the light and glory of the Resurrection and of heaven. Behind Adam stand three other figures: King David, King Solomon (beardless) and John the Baptist. The figures behind Eve differ in different versions of this icon: here they seem to include Abel as a shepherd, and Moses. For a fuller description, see this post in the Orthodox Road blog.

After all, this Eastern icon tradition seems to me to present an image of a ‘better resurrection’. Not the ‘heaven and hell’ destiny that has so often been preached in Western Christianity, but a grand vision of a redemption that will embrace the whole human race, which believes with the Epistle to Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. (Titus 2.11 NRSV)

Do we believe in a big enough, and loving enough God, to accomplish this?