Some of the most vivid artistic depictions of the Resurrection are found in Eastern icons. Eastern icons, by their very nature, take us into a mystical world in which the characters in the icons are depicted in striking color but always with a dignity to them and an expression of looking into the heavenly realm. The Easter icons generally depict Christ being raised from the dead and descending through the gates of hell, which He smashes to pieces, and raising its inhabitants to new life. In these icons, many times, it is Adam and Eve who are being grasped by the hand of Christ and being raised to new life. Oftentimes, presented are also some of the figures of the Old Testament such as Moses, David and Solomon. Also depicted can be others such as John the Baptist and an angelic choir. In some of the icons, a strange skeletal figure or bones can be found which represent death and Satan having been overcome by Christ's Resurrection. As one gazes upon these icons, one is moved more deeply into the reality of the power of the Resurrection which frees us from sin and death and brings us into the life of Christ as well as the fullness of life which He has won for us.
There is a very moving ancient homily for Holy Saturday which is the second reading in the Office of Readings for that day. This homily captures well the sense that is found in the icons depicting the Resurrection. It proclaims clearly the meaning of Easter and its effect in our lives in a most vivid and moving manner. The homily tells us that after His death on the Cross, Christ descended among the dead in Hades in order to raise up all those who had fallen asleep since the foundation of the world. We are told, as is commonly depicted in the icons of Easter, that Christ went in search of Adam and Eve and when He found them, Adam, trembling with fear, cried out to all the dead, "My Lord be with all of you." The Lord took him by the hand and announced, "Awake, O sleeper, rise from the dead for Christ will give you life. I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now, by my own authority, command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated."
As we celebrate Easter, the words spoken in this homily by our Lord are words spoken to all of us in our lives. These words give us hope and assurance that Christ, through His Cross and Resurrection, has joined Himself to us in the deepest manner and is with us in our sufferings and even our death. Through His Resurrection He raises us up. God did not create us to be held prisoners but for the freedom of His life, and even when we put ourselves in prison through sin, He smashes our bonds to pieces and raises us to life both now and for all eternity. We celebrate that Christ is in us and that we are in Him.
The images of the Easter icons and the words of the ancient homily bring clearly to mind the words from the Gospels which we have heard in past Sundays during the season of Lent as we prepared for Easter. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent we heard, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" (Jn 3:16–17). On the Fifth Sunday of Lent we heard Jesus proclaim "Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself" (Jn 12:31-32). The Father sent His Son not to condemn us but to save us. God loves the world and created the human person as the pinnacle of creation so that He might enter into a real relationship with each person. Sin did not prevent God from loving us and He gave us His Son who gave His life in order that we might have life. We have been raised up with Christ. Satan's reign has been destroyed. God truly makes a home in us and we are able to make a home in Him. It is only in this home that we find our place and our joy.
In my previous column, I reflected upon the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his homily for Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. The Pope gave us three words to set the tone for our Lenten observances – pause, see, return. These words are also good ones to keep before us at the celebration of Easter and during the Easter season. Pope Francis observes that life has so many inherent difficulties which bring with them temptations of distrust, apathy and resignation and these tend to deaden and paralyze the soul of the person of faith. As we look at the apostles and disciples after the Resurrection of Christ, we can see how important it was for them to pause, see and return.
As the disciples come to the tomb on Easter morning, they are not expecting to find it empty. They had the need to pause in order to understand what was before them. While the tomb was empty, and while some saw the burial cloths in the tomb, it was the pause which enabled them to understand what had occurred. The disciples had faced great difficulty at the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but it was only pausing on their part which enables them to understand the words regarding His Cross and Resurrection which He had spoken to them during His ministry. Indeed, it was only after Jesus actually appeared to them that they began to understand what had occurred and even then found it difficult to believe. We took much time during Lent to pause through some practice of penance or spiritual exercise to help us prepare for the Easter season. It is well for us during this season to take the same pause in order to meet the resurrected Christ in our lives and not to have the Easter season pass with the end of Lent.
The disciples saw the risen Christ after His Resurrection. They saw Him in a physical manner which will never be available to us. However, it was only their faith which enabled them to actually see what was before them. The resurrected Christ truly does appear to us in our own lives in so many different ways. He appears to us in the sacraments, most especially in the Eucharist, in our hearts as He speaks to us, in other people who are before us and in manners of which we may not even conceive. However, like the disciples, so many distractions and human preoccupations can cause us from missing Christ’s presence before us which is even more powerful than His appearances after His Resurrection. The Easter season is a wonderful opportunity to open ourselves to His presence before us so that we can truly see Him.
The encounter of the disciples with the risen Lord was always a call which opened up inside of them a realization that they needed to return to Christ. The encounter of Jesus with a repentant Peter, the encounter of Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the encounter of Jesus with the doubting Thomas, and so many others reminded them that He had come to heal them of their sins and failures in order that they could come more fully to Him. Easter should be a time for all of us to realize that the Resurrection of Jesus has freed us from the fear that our sins can separate us from Him. We all have more need to return to Him, to be touched by Him and to experience His healing love in order to truly find the full freedom of the Resurrection. Easter is as equally important a time as Lent to realize our need for return.
I began this column by reflecting on the eastern icons which represent the Resurrection of Christ as He descends among the dead and raises them to life. I also referred to an ancient Easter homily which makes reference to what is represented in these icons. I would like to conclude with some words of St. John Chrysostom, an eastern Doctor of the Church, in his famous Paschal homily:
"Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.... Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for death of the Savior has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. He vexed it as he tasted of his flesh.... O death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory?... Christ is risen! And you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice! Christ is risen! And life is liberated!” To Him be glory and power, now and forever, and from all ages to all ages.
A blessed Easter to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 30, 2018