Images of Resurrection Part 2

Well, just when I asked a question about why there are so few images of the resurrection in churches I received a stunning answer in the book I’m currently reading by Tomas Halik, Patience with God. I think Halik is one of the most creative theological voices I’ve heard in a long time in the way he responds to the situation of Christian faith in contemporary Europe, writing, as he does, from one of the least religiously observant countries in our continent. But he writes as a sympathetic fellow-traveller, not a strident critic of his contemporaries.

His take on the absence of images of the resurrection is subtle. First, he insists that there can be no meaningful talk of resurrection without a serious understanding of the cross and all it entails in terms of Jesus’ abandonment and suffering. Such a resurrection would simply be a find of triumphalism. Then he suggests that the resurrection is not depicted because it is an event that must take place in us. It is a profound mystery which, if it does not decisively shape the way we live our lives is nothing more than ‘just another event’ to whose veracity we assent passively:

What distinguishes it from the other historical facts is that it is ‘visible’ only with the eyes of faith – and because in the here and now even faith sees all the things of God only partially and as in a mirror, it must be supported in the darkness of our lives by patience and the perseverance of hope.

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Belief in the Resurrection means accepting that ‘strength that showed itself in ‘weakness’, the strength of Christ’s sacrifice – His sacrificial love as a living reality. Not to believe in Christ’s Resurrection is to live as if the cross were the final end.

Seen with the eyes of faith, the resurrection becomes a total commitment to the way of self-giving love, trusting that this way is ultimately life-giving. In the midst of history, the resurrection ‘should be present through the testimony of those who make known that Christ is not a finished chapter.’

Images of Resurrection

I often complain about the relative scarcity of images of the resurrection in our churches. We don’t seem to have any shortage of images of the crucifixion and many churches are surrounded by the Stations of the Cross. Neither do we lack images of the infant Christ with his Mother. But even in a church like Old St Paul’s, which is not short of religious images, you would struggle to find one of the resurrection. Every Orthodox church will have an icon of the Anastasis so why are Western churches so hesitant to depict what ought to be one of the central images of our faith?

I was delighted, therefore, when I watched Pope Francis’ most recent Regina Caeli address, to see an image of the risen Christ behind him in the library of the Apostolic Palace (the one he doesn’t live in!). It’s a well-known image by Perugino and was originally in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia (no longer active – the building suffered a lot over the centuries and only the shell remains).

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It dates from the very end of the 15th century and depicts a fairly typical scene in the Western tradition, with Christ rising above an opened sarcophagus surrounded by sleeping soldiers. He carries the banner of the resurrection and, in this version is flanked by angels. He is also surrounded by a mandorla, a device common in Eastern iconography to indicate a theological truth rather than a naturalistic depiction. I rather like the touch of having Christ and the angels standing on little clouds as if they would look silly just floating around! This is a spiritual image in the sense that it seeks to reveal the inner truth of the resurrection: this is new life as a risen and exalted reality, a life free from constraint and from the torpor of mundane existence. It is awakened life in contrast to the dulled and introspective life depicted in the soldiers.

All of this stands in stark contrast to a much better known painting from only a few decades earlier and only a few dozen kilometres away in Sansepolcro.

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If Perugino’s painting is of a heavenly character, Piero della Francesca’s fresco is very much of the earth. No floating, no angels, no mandorla, this Christ has his feet firmly planted on the solid marble of the sarcophagus. The soft fluidity of Christ’s body in Perugino’s image is contrasted by the stately, muscular body of Piero’s Christ. In Piero, new life is shown in nature – green trees springing to life on the right of the scene, bare branches on the left. Christ’s penetrating, arresting gaze is contrasted by Perugino’s Christ whose eyes are cast down, reflective.

I don’t really have any kind of theological preference between these images and I think they complement each other rather well. Although substantially using the same iconographic format, they propose very different angles on the resurrection. Their different emphases underline the elusive and complex mystery of the risen Christ who brings an inner renewal as well as the call to a transformation of life in its earthly realities.

Sermon for Easter 4

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about doors recently. Each morning, I open up the door to the Calvary Stair from Jeffrey Street and then lock it behind me as I prepare to pray Morning Prayer and the Mass, not alone, but in the company of many who join online and very many more who pray where and whenever they can, conscious that they are part of something bigger. The ‘something bigger’ is not just the scattered community of Old St Paul’s, though I think we’ve all realised even more deeply how much we value that these last few weeks, but the scattered community of all those who long for something more, who have a sense that life is not purposeless, not disposable, but truly valuable, truly meant.

Images of the Good Shepherd : Icons or not? | A Russian Orthodox ...

So on one level, it feels wrong that I have to come down those stairs again some time later and once more lock the door. We are used to our precious temple being a little island of peace in our city that welcomes any who seek solace, peace, meaning, rest, quiet – a place where all questions are welcome, all longings treasured as signs of the beyond, indications of the incomplete nature of life that nonetheless suggest a deep intuition that all is not meaningless.

But I wonder if this time of locks and closed doors might be inviting us to think afresh about what the thresholds are between a patterned, committed religious life and the lives of those who may not feel comfortable joining us, and yet are asking the kind of serious if unresolved questions that we all recognise. Let me put it more starkly: does this time of locked doors not open to us the possibility that the threshold between ‘in’ and ‘out’ is something much more dynamic than we had supposed? Where is our doorstep? Where is the half-opened door where the most vital conversations happen? Who is inside and who is outside, and do these categories really make sense anymore?

We are used to thinking of doors and thresholds as devices necessary for containment. I think there is a real risk in the current crisis to harden that kind of thinking. We’ve heard it already from some political leaders who see this pandemic as an opportunity to draw more sharply the line between in and out, us and them. Those of us inside have been assaulted from without by some alien invader. This thinking is profoundly wrong and extremely dangerous for it fails to see that we are all in this together, irrespective of borders, and the only wise response is one that works from a very wide sense of what ‘us’ means. We need each other now more than ever.

And for the church too, this is a time to consider again what we mean by ‘us’. Who are those on ‘this’ side of the door and who are those beyond? Today’s Gospel might easily be read as a manifesto for those who want to make a clear division between the insiders and the outsiders. The good shepherd knows his own and protects them from the nasty invaders who threaten them. Keep together, shut the door, close ranks against the big bad world outside. But I hear the story in today’s Gospel very differently. Jesus does not seem to be interested in the identity of the sheep that are of his own particular flock. He is concerned with the gift of abundant life to anyone who hears a voice that speaks their name, anyone who ‘goes in and out and finds pasture’. The thing is, the door is Jesus, and the door is open. The door is not a separating barrier but a threshold where encounters happen and it is everywhere.

We might then say, ‘why speak of doors at all? There is no difference, no separation, no sacred and profane, no us and them.’ I think I want to keep hold of the image of the doorway because all of us recognise that, in life, there are thresholds. There are times when we realise something new, times when we break through to a new insight, times when we move from a place of hesitant inaction to a place of dynamic, if still hesitant openness.

I wonder if this time of closed doors might be a time to rediscover the thresholds where encounters happen, thresholds where people are expressing their deepest longings for meaning, love, nourishment, hope. I wonder if this is a time when we discover once again that the church is a doorway that always lies open to the world, open to this city of ours, open to the questioning, the seeking, the hesitant. How might we find new ways to linger in that doorway, wherever it is?

And I wonder if this is a time when we discover afresh the encounter that happens for ourselves, on our own thresholds between us and one whose voice we recognise. This voice says ‘come on in’. It says ‘come and go and come again with your news about where you have found good pasture’. It says ‘look out for the sheep that are not of this fold’. It says ‘you are a flock without number, without limit.’ The voice says ‘you are alive when you see that the door lies open because the door is me, and I am not here. I am out and about, seeking to save that which is lost. Come with me.’