Resurrecting Easter

by Rev. Dr. Wayne Fraser

In November I received as a birthday gift a beautifully produced book, Resurrecting Easter by John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah Sexton Crossan. (It helps to send a wish list to family members.) The book offers clear, thoughtful analysis of fascinating colour illustrations from many locations throughout Europe.

The result of twenty research trips, Resurrecting Easter demonstrates through the prism of art the developing understanding of Resurrection over the first one thousand years of Christianity. 

The Crossans ask: if the “moment of Christ’s Resurrection as it is actually happening” is not described in the Bible, then “how can it ever be depicted in an image?” The Bible presents only the immediate aftermath of that moment, the soldiers guarding the tomb, the women approaching, the angels appearing. What actually happened?

The first illustrations of that crucial moment, called the “Anastasis,” literally the “up-rising,” were symbolic only, for example, a stylized cross or beams of light. While the other figures mentioned above had long been portrayed, only gradually does Jesus appear in bodily form. He is pictured emerging from the tomb, sometimes half in, half out, other times, standing beside and completely out.

In or out, Christ is often portrayed striding a figure of Hades or Satan and leading various shades out of Hades, first always Adam, followed by Eve, King David and Solomon, and then others. This depiction presents universal resurrection, not just the individual resurrection of Jesus. 

Near the beginning of the second millennium, in the Great Schism of 1054, Eastern and Western Christianity split, and, as the subtitle of the book suggests, “the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision.” 

The Western Church emphasized the image of individual resurrection by downgrading the universal, renaming it “the Descent into Hell, or the Harrowing of Hell.” For the West, Resurrection came to focus on what happened to Jesus and thereby lost the universal implications. The Eastern Church in contrast maintained the imagery of universal resurrection, the idea that Resurrection happens for all of humanity, indeed, all of creation. 

Richard Rohr delayed publication of his recent book The Universal Christ (see Rob Roi’s review in the June 2019 Niagara Anglican) until the Crossans’ book was published so that he “could include [their] artistic, historic, and archeological evidence for what I am trying to say theologically.” Both books together, remarkable companion pieces, will inspire deep spiritual contemplation.