Jesus is standing on the broken doors of hell. The massive portals lie crossed under his feet, a reminder of the Cross that won this triumph. He stands braced and striding, like a superhero, using his mighty outstretched arms to lift a great weight.
That weight is Adam and Eve themselves, our father and mother in the fallen flesh. Jesus grasps Adam's wrist with his right hand and Eve's with his left, as he pulls them forcibly up, out of the carved marble boxes that are their graves. Eve is shocked and appears almost to recoil in shame, long gray hair streaming, tattered robe barely concealing flattened breasts. Adam gazes at Christ with a look of stunned awe, face lined with weary age, his long tangled beard awry. Their limp hands lie in Jesus' powerful grip as he hauls them up into the light.
Behind Christ, King David, King Solomon, the prophet Isaiah, and the prophet Jeremiah stand in gorgeous robes, clustered tightly like a standing-room-only crowd to see this marvelous event. There is an air of joy, even conviviality, among them. St. John the Baptist is in the throng, still clothed in camel skin, now in full repossession of his head. Behind them are ranks and ranks of the righteous dead who are dead no more, for Christ has set them free.
Beneath Christ's feet, there is a black receding pit with floating silver shards of metal, chains, locks, and ominous instruments of pain. These instruments are broken and shattered, and the locks are unhinged, except for one set, still intact and in use. These locks bind the body of that vicious old Satan, who grimaces in his captivity, bound hand and foot and cast into his own darkness.
When you think of images of the Resurrection, what do you think of? Probably not this traditional image used in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the West, our first image is usually a graceful one- women, who had been trudging toward the tomb on a misty Sunday dawn, stand stock-still in astonishment. An angel is sitting on a round stone with one hand raised in the air.
The image conveys a sense of silence and the stillness of caught breath as the moment on which the whole world turns is revealed. Colors are muted. The dew wets the hem of the women's dresses, and, for a moment, all is still. This garden-tomb image answers the question at the end of the three days, "Who rolled away the stone?" But there is another question, "Where did he go?"
"Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" Jesus might ask us once again. In Orthodoxy, we believe that the central meaning of the Resurrection is victory. Thus our traditional image is more vibrant and noisy, and it rings with a victorious shout. The Resurrection is a victory over sin, death, and the devil, and a victory over the dark forces that enslave us, despise us, and wish to destroy us. Thus we cry hundreds of times between Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!"
For long millennia, the righteous were trapped in the lair of Satan. "And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect" (Heb. 11:39-40). Even those who were not righteous heard the ringing voice of Christ in the grave: "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah" (I Peter 3:18-20). It was to the spirits in prison that Jesus went and defeated that cruel jailer and set them free.
Where'd he go? He went to hell.
Why'd he go? He went for me.
Almost twenty-four years ago I did the strangest of the many strange things I've attempted in life. I became an active, committed Christian.
When my husband, Gary, and I met in 1972, I was a pint-sized package of sarcastic "hipness," and a perpetually indignant feminist. I was also a lapsed Roman Catholic. As a child I'd had a sweet, childish piety, and at nine I told my parents that I wanted to be a nun. They were witty, educated people who traveled in intellectual circles and who explained to me that this was neurotic. By high school, I was attending the Unitarian church and beginning a restless search for something that would ring true. After years of cruising circles through Eastern religions, I settled for Hinduism, which had a higher entertainment value than the other brands. I chose it like I chose my clothes. I can't say that it ever chose me, or that I surrendered to it in any profound way.
During my college years I lived on "Olympia Hill," a site less heavenly than its name suggests. Our southern city had once been host to a booming textile industry, and a hundred years ago a ramshackle collection of unheated wooden houses had been thrown together beyond the railroad tracks. By the time I arrived, Olympia Hill had developed a mixed population: what my grandmother contemptuously referred to as "po' buckra" (white trash) and hippies from the college.
Country people and blue collar laborers lived side by side with more flamboyant types. One neighbor, an avant-garde artist, spent a semester working in sweet potatoes. (I remember in particular a belt studded with them). Next door to him, a grim Communist was vocally in favor of returning possession of all things to "The People." He came over so frequently to borrow items from us that my roommate took to announcing up the stairs, "'The People' is here again, and he wants to borrow your stereo."
Down the dirt road was a tiny clapboard Pentecostal church where on Sunday evenings they would sing and holler, raising dust in the pink twilight air. Across the road, the neighbor's hog would sometimes mark the noise and rest his chin on the peeling wooden fence. I sat on the front-porch rocker and listened to the congregation's wholehearted joy, sometimes feeling moved to longing tears. How sweet it would be, I thought, to be that simple. But of course, I was too sophisticated for that. You can't return to that childlike ignorance. I had shot too far past that place of wistful piety and could never return.
Gary didn't seem to feel any such longing. If God existed, it was OK, as long as he didn't bother us. As we wound up our college careers, Gary was more interested in making sure he took every philosophy course taught by his favorite professor. It was in one of those last courses that he was assigned to read a Gospel. He chose Mark, because it was the shortest.
Then something happened to him as he read it. "It's this Jesus," he said to me, a little bewildered. "There's something about him. I've never encountered anyone like him. It's like he speaks with authority. If Jesus says there is a God, then I guess there must be one."
This was not welcome news to me. I felt pretty hostile to Christianity, which I thought was an oppressive, patriarchal religion that took people away from the real work of revolution. I was already annoyed that so many students on campus were wearing "One Way" Jesus-freak patches on their jeans. I was one of the few wearing a women's liberation patch--the cross-and-circle women's symbol with a fist in the center.
The importance of this image to me had been the occasion of an unsettling experience not long before. I had gone out at dusk with a can of paint to streak a foot-high women's liberation symbol on the temporary wall around a construction site. The campus was oddly deserted for the time of day, and I worked undisturbed. Then a young man came slowly up the hill below me, until he stood looking at my work, glossy green on white. Then he looked at me.
"This is not really important," he said. I looked at him amazed, my paintbrush dripping onto the street. He gestured at the wall. "This doesn't really matter. It's not eternally important. But someday you will find out what is." Then he walked on.
The encounter raised some lingering, eerie feelings, and my irritation with the Jesus bozos increased. Secretly, I was afraid. Those idiots had warped so many minds; was Gary to be next?
No, I was next. Gary was on a leisurely path, pondering Scripture and theology, continuing to search and read, drawn irresistibly from one tome to the next. I was about to turn about-face, and rocket down the highway to Faith.
We wound up two years of a tie-dyed romance with a wedding in the woods. I wore unbleached muslin, sandals, and flowers in my hair. After the vegetarian reception under the trees, we headed off for a three-month honeymoon, hitchhiking and hopping trains across Europe.
On June 20, 1974, we took the ferry from Wales to Ireland, then hitchhiked to Dublin. After dropping our bags at a hotel, we walked in the waning light through the city and stopped at an old gray church squeezed into the facade of a city block.
I strolled into the dim interior, past the massive main altar and the statues. At last I came to a small altar with a statue of Jesus. The sculptor had depicted his heart visible in the center of his chest, twined with thorns and springing with flames. I remembered from girlhood the story. He had appeared like this to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque three hundred years ago. He had told her, "Behold the heart which has so loved mankind."
When I came to myself again I realized I was on my knees. I could hear a voice speaking inside. It was saying, "I am your life. You think that your life is your name, your personality, your history. But that is not your life. I am your life.
"Beyond that, you think that your life is the fact that you are alive, that your breath goes in and out, that energy courses in your veins. But even that is not your life. I am your life.
"I am the foundation of everything else in your life."
When I got up I felt pretty shaky. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. In a strange way, it seemed like the most real thing that had ever happened: a brutal confrontation with reality. In comparison, all previous life seemed pale.
But I had no idea what it meant. The only sense I could make of it at the time was that, although all religions were of equal value, I would now be a Christian instead of a Hindu. But at the same time, I sensed that I wasn't merely making an alternative choice. Instead, a spiritual power had chosen me--a force that I hadn't known existed.
I didn't tell Gary for a week. It took that long to get over that feeling of surprise. However, I did immediately become annoyingly nice. I didn't want to leave the hotel room in the morning before straightening up, as a favor to the maid. When we stood by the side of the road hitchhiking, playing word games to pass the time, I would let him win. I felt unexpectedly, unusually happy.
I also felt a pressing need to read a Bible. If this guy Jesus is going to be my boss, who the heck is he? I bought a small King James version in London and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew. I wasn't pleased. I found a lot to argue with. But a conviction was slowly seeping into me. I didn't make the world, I didn't know everything, and it was time to sit down and listen. The experience in the Dublin church had blown away my neat ideas of the orderly world. I had been forced to admit I was dealing with things I didn't understand. I needed to be taught by someone who did. I kept plowing away at the Gospels, though not without grumbling.
A flash forward of six months finds Gary and me kneeling on the floor of our one-room log cabin, while our friend Greg prays with us. He had introduced us to a new idea: we should formalize our relationship with Jesus by stating in prayer our intention to follow Him. My first reaction had been, "But we're not Baptists." Gary and I had grown up in South Carolina, where "take Jesus as your personal Savior" was associated with country folks and shoutin', sweatin' fundamentalists. You mean people in graduate school should do that too? But it felt right, as if we had been groping along an unknown path, and this would bring us firmly into the light.
I cannot explain why I was seized in an instant and swept into the thorn-pierced heart of God. I know I don't deserve it. Nothing in my life made me worthy. I was far from good or virtuous, a petty, self-centered person who delighted in ridiculing the Lord and his followers.
I had actively tried to destroy the faith of the simple Christians I had met. St. Paul only held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, but I was in there throwing rocks. That Jesus would snatch me out of the sea of my confusion and self-will is completely inexplicable. Nothing I can do can ever repay that gift. All I want to do is call others to accept it.
Twenty-four years later, I'm still getting used to the strangeness of that moment, a single moment of exploding grace, when I looked at a statue in a Dublin church.
The fingers of this conversion moment reach into my small life from a great distance in time and place. It comes halfway around the world and over two millennia, from that moment of unseen triumph in the depths of hell, and the revelation of that victory to the women in the garden.
When we turn to the biblical story of the Resurrection we find that, in Matthew at least, it's not as silent as our imaginations suggest. As the women arrive at the tomb there is "a great earthquake" caused by the descent of an angel. "His appearance was like lightning," an image of great impact in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that it is so hard to visualize. He is dressed in robes white as snow--whiter than any fabric could be in that era.
The angel rolls away the stone and, in a closing gesture of command, sits upon it. That settles that. The terror-stricken guards, whose training had not covered this situation, are so frozen with fear that they "became as dead men." The women are not much less terrified, but they listen as the angel tells them not to be afraid. He gives them instructions: Go tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.
As they depart, "with fear and great joy," they meet the Lord himself, fresh from his triumph over Death. As the women fall at his feet, he repeats the angel's message: "Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee."
This version of the story differs from that in the Gospel of Mark, and for some reason I find the perplexing Marcan version even more intriguing. As Mark has it, the women go to anoint Jesus' body, but instead find in the tomb "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a long white robe." He tells them that Jesus is risen and instructs them to tell the disciples, as above. But here we are told that they are terrified and flee the tomb. "And said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." The earliest versions of this, the earliest Gospel, end abruptly at this point.
It's an odd gap between that small vignette of fear and retreat, and all that came next: the Apostles' relentless courage unto death, ascribable to mere fond memories of a really nice dead guy; the preaching of the gospel across the Mediterranean bowl, the persecutions and martyrdom, the establishment and rise of the church, and finally, the disintegration of Christendom in these times, perhaps a prelude to full-circle persecution and martyrdom. But at one mesmerizing moment, the news of Christ's resurrection was held by a handful of women who were too scared to tell anyone. But tell they did, and the story went on unreeling, till half a world away and two thousand years later we sing it out with joy: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Softly and Tenderly