In the Western part of the world the Easter image we're most accustomed to is that of Jesus, wrapped in a white cloth with banner in hand, exiting, perhaps even flying out of the cave-tomb. There might be Roman soldiers fallen down, an angel or two and the sun at dawn.. The scene can evoke comfort and joy.
But the images (icons) found in Eastern Christianity tell us more, especially the more as it impacts upon the world and our personal lives. Eastern Christian art speaks to us through the use of symbol. It never attempts to capture a moment the way a camera would have, were cameras available centuries ago. Icons set out to tell us about the eternal meaning of the events depicted. The icon writer (painter) doesn't employ the rules of perspective as we understand them because he/she isn't depicting events simply in earth-time. The iconographer knows that eternal events are being celebrated in the creation of an authentic icon.
The Easter icon depicts the mysterious phrase spoken of Jesus in the Apostles' Creed: "He descended to the dead." Or the word might be Hades - the place of the dead. Speculation and debate about the geography of Hades or the place of the dead might be missing the point. More importantly we might simply let the icon reveal its message to us.
So much of this icon is a black hole. An abyss; a chasm. It is the underworlds we read about and those we know nothing about, as they are either safely secreted or perhaps we have chosen to live in ignorance of them. The black-chasm is the world's sealed archives, locked drawers and files that conceal terrible secrets. The black-chasm symbolizes where death squads plot and exploitive corporate deals are signed, where civilian deaths are written off as collateral damage, where little girls are aborted just for being little girls, where torture, slavery and execution take place, where crimes and sins are concealed or minimized. But the chasm is within each of us too: the destructive lie or whisper, the concealed theft, the consumerism that's spoiling our paradise,the cold heart, the blind eye, the deaf ear I turn.
But Jesus-God has not been frightened away by the darkness that seeks to swallow us up. Look! He rushes, he runs into the chasm, perhaps even kicking down the doors which barricaded the chasm, and with such intensity that all of the securing hardware, the nuts and bolts, the screws, locks and keys are flying uselessly through the scene. Jesus descends into the place of deep, human hopelessness and death - a veritable land of death - and with an outstretched arm He singles out and approaches Adam and Eve, at the head of all of humanity, delicately lifting them out of their stone-cold tombs, to their feet and to a new life. The assembly of royals on the left seem to be particularly animated and glad. Maybe that's because those in power often have more to be forgiven than ordinary folks.
Jesus is the Light-Bearer! Indeed, he seems to stand encapsulated in light. His radiation illumines the deepest places of destruction to which humans can descend. Even the ground or floor of the underworld sparkles! Aware or unaware, I stand on that illumined ground.
So here's an Easter Meditation or prayer idea. It's very hard, perhaps not even possible, for Westerners to blank their minds. I might try instead to lock my mind, fixing it on a single point.
- My feet on the floor, I come to an inner quiet-place with distractions minimized.
- I study the icon, looking at it long enough to have become familiar with it.
- At some point I may close my eyes, the icon imprinted inside now.
- I imagine taking up my place in the group to the right.
- I feel and identify the darkness surrounding me.
- In humility I understand that I'm in the mix of humanity represented.
- Perhaps I am able to identify others with me from the past or the present.
- I am perhaps especially aware of someone who needs forgiveness.
- I witness Christ's breakthrough and sense the light.
- Christ has come to lift me up; to escort me.
- My heart says of you, "Seek His face!" Your face, O Lord, I shall seek. Psalm 27:8-9
- Perhaps Jesus speaks a Resurrection-word to me.
- I rest in the silence of this Easter moment.
- I respond gratefully; a word that grows out of silence.
Christ is Risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!
Eastern Christian Resurrection Hymn