As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!
During the Easter season I love to meditate on the traditional Byzantine icon of the Resurrection. Somewhat surprisingly, this image does not depict Jesus emerging triumphant from the tomb (as we see in much of Western sacred art). Instead, this icon presents as the image of the Lord’s Resurrection, the mystery of his descent among the dead. This icon depicts visually what we proclaim in the Apostle’s Creed, that “he descended into hell.”
In the icon, Christ tramples down the ‘doors of death’, the symbol of the dominion of sin and death over our lives. Beneath the doors is the black abyss of the Pit, death itself, which Christ, our Passover, has passed through. In the darkness of the Pit are broken locks, chains and fetters, symbolizing that by the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection, we are liberated from everything that binds, oppresses and enslaves us.
The icon presents to us an important truth: the mystery of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is not only for the future, when we will rise again with him on the last day. We are baptized into new life in Christ so that we might be healed, strengthened, liberated and transformed each day of our lives.
In this icon, Christ is shown within the center of the mandorla, the ‘bright shining darkness’ which signals that we can only see and understand this mystery by looking with eyes of faith.
Surrounding Christ are the righteous of the Old and New Testaments. We see John the Baptist, King David and his son Solomon; Moses the Lawgiver and the prophets. They make visible for us the words of the First Letter of Peter:
“Christ died once for our sins. An innocent person died for those who were guilty. Christ did this to bring you to God, when his body was put to death and his spirit was made alive. Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison.” (1Peter 18-19)
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul spoke of this great mystery of the Lord’s descent among the dead, stating that Jesus:
“descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens.” (Ephesians 4:9)
St. Paul invites us to see the Lord’s descent among the dead and his ascent into the heavens as linked events, bringing to mind the beautiful words of the Psalmist:
O where can I go from your spirit.
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb to the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there. (Ps.138)
In the Psalm we encounter a God who seeks us out, in the heights and depths of our experience. Even when we run away from God, He seeks us out. It is as though when, because of our own pride or fear or alienation from God, we say in our pride or despair: “I will hide from you, O God in the darkness of the tomb”; Jesus replies, ‘Then I too will die, I too will be buried, so as not to be separated from the man and the woman who I love with a love beyond all telling.’
In the icon, we see Jesus the Good Shepherd descending even among the dead to find his lost sheep, beginning with our first parents, Adam and Eve in their tombs, expectantly waiting for their deliverance. Jesus takes first Adam and then Eve by the hand and pulls them, living, from the grave. From the utter darkness of the tomb they emerge into the dazzling light of Christ our Life and our Hope.
This is the image of our own personal, mystical death and resurrection in the waters of baptism. The Lord, who cherishes each one of us beyond all measure, has gone down into the darkness, sadness, disorder and death of each of our lives and blazing with light, like the new fire of the Easter Vigil, illumines us with his life, joy, happiness and peace.
For those of us who are fortunate to have neophytes, (the newly baptized), in our parishes, we are invited to see them as living icons in our midst of the resurrection of the Lord. Let us celebrate for the next fifty days the boundless love of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, and who has followed us into the grave itself to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death.
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Truly Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!