Lessons from Old Art: The Harrowing of Hell and Liberation for All

Icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. Chains and locks fly in all directions. This is good news that’s worthy of the name! The resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection. 

The Crossans demonstrate through art that “the West lost and the East kept the original Easter vision.” In my opinion, both of us tried to breathe the full air of the Gospel with only one lung, and it left us with an incomplete and not really victorious message. All that remained in the Western church was the one line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” but few were sure what that exactly meant.

In Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Western Christians observe something strikingly different from our familiar depictions. Eastern icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. Chains and locks fly in all directions. This is good news that’s worthy of the name!  He is joined atop with a cloud of other resurrected bodies (Matthew 27:52-53)—some with halos some not!

Most Western paintings of the resurrection show a lone man stepping out of a tomb with a white banner in his hand, but in the many churches and art museums I’ve visited around the world, I have yet to see any written words on that banner. I always wonder, why the empty space? Perhaps it is because we were unsure about the message of resurrection. We had imagined that resurrection was just about Jesus, and then found ourselves unable to prove it, nor could we always find this abundant life within ourselves or other human beings.  It became simply something to “believe”.

The resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection. As prayers of the Catholic funeral Mass affirm, “Life is not ended but merely changed.” Jesus’ incarnate life, his passing over into death, and his resurrection into the ongoing Christ life is the archetypal model for the entire pattern of creation—which Eastern Orthodox artists help us to visualize. Jesus is the microcosm for the whole cosmos. As in him, so also in all of us. As in all of us, so also in him.

**

Crossan Harrowing of Hell Jesus icon

Good News from Old Images
Sunday, November 10, 2019

I am telling you something that has been a secret. We are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed. —1 Corinthians 15:51

This year’s Daily Meditations explore the theme “Old and New: An Evolving Faith.” Rather than seeing “old” and “new” dualistically, the term “evolving” acknowledges the relationship between the two. We are often surprised to learn that a deeper awareness or clearer vision is actually only “new” to us and considered “old” by others. My friends John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan have uncovered this for me with their extensive research on how Christ’s resurrection is portrayed in Western and Eastern Christian art or icons. [1]

Art reveals what people believe and emphasize at any one time. In their masterful study, the Crossans demonstrate that the East and West each had very different theologies. The West declared, “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual. The Eastern church saw the resurrection in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ. Unfortunately, after the Schism of 1054, the two Christian threads had little reliance upon one other, since each considered the other side heretical and did not seriously study one another’s sources.

The Crossans demonstrate through art that “the West lost and the East kept the original Easter vision.” In my opinion, both of us tried to breathe the full air of the Gospel with only one lung, and it left us with an incomplete and not really victorious message. All that remained in the Western church was the one line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” but few were sure what that exactly meant.

In Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Western Christians observe something strikingly different from our familiar depictions. Eastern icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. Chains and locks fly in all directions. This is good news that’s worthy of the name!  He is joined atop with a cloud of other resurrected bodies (Matthew 27:52-53)—some with halos some not!

Most Western paintings of the resurrection show a lone man stepping out of a tomb with a white banner in his hand, but in the many churches and art museums I’ve visited around the world, I have yet to see any written words on that banner. I always wonder, why the empty space? Perhaps it is because we were unsure about the message of resurrection. We had imagined that resurrection was just about Jesus, and then found ourselves unable to prove it, nor could we always find this abundant life within ourselves or other human beings.  It became simply something to “believe”.

The resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection. As prayers of the Catholic funeral Mass affirm, “Life is not ended but merely changed.” Jesus’ incarnate life, his passing over into death, and his resurrection into the ongoing Christ life is the archetypal model for the entire pattern of creation—which Eastern Orthodox artists help us to visualize. Jesus is the microcosm for the whole cosmos. As in him, so also in all of us. As in all of us, so also in him.

References:
[1] John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision (HarperOne: 2018), 45-59.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 105-106, 185-186. See also my meditation earlier this year, “The Death of Death,” https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/; view examples of Eastern and Western icons of the resurrection and watch my short explanation at universalchrist.cac.org/#history-of-the-christ.

Image credit: Resurrection of Christ and Descent into Hell with the Feasts and Saints (detail), tempera on wood panel, Russia, late 19th century.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: Eastern icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. . . . This is good news that’s worthy of the name!  —Richard Rohr

 

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