Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Morning After

In The Dwelling of the Light, a reflection on icons of Christ, RowanWilliams (the former archbishop of Canterbury), reflecting on the icon tradition of the Eastern Church, wrote, 
Orthodox theologians have said—surely rightly—that the moment of resurrection could not be depicted, any more than you could depict the moment of creation or the moment of incarnation. You cannot paint a picture of the simple act of God… You can only show the effect of God’s action: the creation itself carrying the mystery of God in its very being, the human situation transformed by God. So you can depict the Risen Christ, but not the event of the resurrection…
So the classical Easter icon shows something more than an historical event: it shows, you might say, the effect of God’s action on human history up to that point, and implicitly, the effect of God’s action on all history. Just as the transfiguration icon shows the light of Jesus’ presence illuminating Moses and Elijah, this icon shows Jesus bringing Adam and Eve out of the realm of death into the same light-filled presence.
 
The limitations of human language, art, and ritual were not news to the Early Church. Because of this, their Easter experience was not enshrined with abstract philosophical concepts and fine language (that would be the work of later generations of theologians and poets). Instead of just passively remembering Christ, they experienced him: the Risen One was not the subject of some myth or beautiful story—he was a living, redemptive, and actual presence among them. Those first Christians proclaimed (sometimes at their own peril): “Christ lives in me!” Like the icon writers who understood that God’s action transcends the limits of human intellect and artistry, the early generations of believers understood that the only way to truly celebrate the mystery of Easter was to live Christ.
 
There is nothing in Sacred Scripture that tell us that Jesus’ Resurrection was anything other than a hidden event. There was nothing in it, as Henri Nouwen observed, that would force people to believe: 
Rather, it was an event for the friends of Jesus, for those who had known him, listened to him, and believed in him. It was a very intimate event: a word here, a gesture there, and a gradual awareness that something new was being born—small, hardly noticed, but with the potential to change the face of the earth. Mary Magdalene heard her name. John and Peter saw the empty grave. Jesus’ friends felt their hearts burn in encounters that find expression in the remarkable words: ‘He is risen.’ All had remained the same, while all had changed.

It isn’t by chance that Church chooses to read the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season. Luke’s chronicle of the Apostles in Jerusalem, of the death of Stephen, and the missionary zeal of Paul, Barnabas, and Silas, is an extended account of what that changed world was like and of how the faith, hope, and love of those men and women began to spread like a fire, taking light into the darkest places of the human experience—just like the light of Jesus’ love had illuminated the dark places of their own hearts and minds. They didn’t have everything figured out and theirs was an imperfect, all-too-human faith, but their Easter experience empowered them (speaking in the person of Peter) to proclaim:
 
"You who are children of Israel, hear these words.
Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God
with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs,
which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.
This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God,
you killed using lawless men to crucify him.
But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death,
because it was impossible for him to be held by it"
(Acts 2:22-24 - from the First Reading of Easter Monday)
Where does all this leave us? Has the long passage of time dulled us? Have we lost the wonder and awe of our spiritual ancestors? Has dynamic faith been replaced with dull discipleship?


We have been re-created for love, for joy, for zeal, and for gratitude, “gladly enduring anything, however hard, in order to be free of death and of this life in the midst of death.” We have been granted the freedom to be truly alive. The image of the Risen Jesus taking Adam and Eve by the hand to lead them from the place of the dead is an image of what each of us has experienced. Like the first Christians, we have to unpack that experience, to recognize grace and life in the many little miracles of our day-to-day lives. Then, as Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt has observed, “the powers of the resurrection come closer to us; then Christ really becomes the Risen One, and a new life comes into being. Not the kind of life we have been seeking until now, trying to be a little better than other people, thinking that it is a new life if we steal a little less or walk around a little more decently than before or wear a more respectable coat, or if we exchange a criminal’s cap for something more acceptable. All this is supposed to be new life? Bah!” (from the reflection “Christ Rising”).

 

Just as it was for Peter and Mary and John, living Easter is not about being a little better than we’ve been in the past. Easter life means that the freedom and life restored to us by Jesus can be seen within us, that “something of God and of heaven, something holy, can grow within you” (Blumhardt).

Seek. Hope. Pray. Love. And, above all else, live.
Mary Magadalene announces
the Resurrection to the Apostles
from the St. Alban's Psalter, ca. 1120

Humming in the Dark –
Hope means to keep living
amid desperation
and to keep humming
in the darkness.
Hoping is knowing that there is love,
it is trust in tomorrow
it is falling asleep
and waking again
when the sun rises.
In the midst of a gale at sea,
it is to discover land.
In the eyes of another
it is to see that you are understood…

As long as there is still hope
There will also be prayer…

And you will be held
in God’s hands.
-from With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen

 

 

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