On this Easter Sunday, we reflect on the central mystery of our faith: the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ from the dead. This could not be more important. As St. Paul bluntly puts it, “If Christ be not risen, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … and you are still in your sins.” [1 Cor 15:14-17]. Some translations say, “If Christ be not risen, your faith is useless.”
Without the Resurrection, our communion with the Holy Triune God would be impossible, death would trap us in the eternally unhappy consequences of our own sins and the sins of the whole human race, and ultimately our earthly lives would be without meaning. It is important to contemplate this truth – to think about how transformative the Resurrection of Christ is, not only at the hour of our death, but throughout our lives. There are two important ways to do this: first, through prayerful reading of Scripture and second through the great tradition of Christian art. The two are certainly related, since great art is often a visual meditation on Scripture.
The crucifixion is relatively easy to depict in art, because it is a sad reality of our history, witnessed by countless observers. The moment of the Resurrection, on the other hand, was witnessed by no one. Only the many appearances of Our Lord and Savior after that cataclysmic event have been recorded. Still, piecing together Scripture and tradition, there have been many inspiring depictions of the very moment of the Resurrection. I like this tableau by Plattner (a 19th century artist) because it vividly displays the drama of the Resurrection (most closely aligned with St. Matthew’s Gospel account, c. 28). That is probably the closest moment to the Resurrection itself recorded in the Gospels.
The angel of the Lord appears in a blindingly white robe (v. 3:”His appearance was like lightning and His raiment white as snow.”) We are reminded that the Resurrection of Our Lord makes its imprint on all time (both forward and backward), because of the Lord’s divine power. We see a hint of His upcoming Resurrection in the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-8) where the Lord’s clothes become as white as the Sun, and in St. John’s vision of all the saints in Heaven, the Heavenly city of Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23) where there will be no need of the sun or moon because the glory of the Risen Lord, the Lamb of God, will illuminate the City. In Resurrection paintings, then, like the angel, the Lord is traditionally depicted in dazzlingly white robes.
We see the divine and heavenly power of Our Lord depicted both in the angels kneeling in adoration before Him and in the traditional image of the Resurrection banner in Jesus’ left hand (a red pennant with a white Cross). This has long been used by artists as a symbol of the Lord’s power over sin and death. His right hand is raised in the traditional posture of blessing, but if you look closely you can see that the wound of the nail mark in His hand is still visible. That is a reminder that is precisely through the glorified wounds of Christ, crucified but now risen, that the graces of the Resurrection and its saving power flow onto us. In the earthly realm below, we see the dramatic reaction to this powerful angel, who comes in the midst of a great earthquake to signify the Lord’s power and might. He takes away the stone and sits upon it, thus revealing to the world that the Lord is no longer dead, but that He truly lives! He invites the onlookers to examine the place where Jesus lay – so that the absence of the dead body will be the sign for every generation that just as death had no power over Jesus, that it will have no power over those who remain united to Him.
We can see in the characters to whom the angel came two very different reactions to this stunning news: the Roman guards, who are literally quaking in fear, recoiling from the angel like dead men [v. 4]. They represent the non-believers. But the holy women (the Mary’s) have a mixture of fear, awe, puzzlement, and wonder. These clearly represent the believers. The angel even tells them that he knows that they are seeking Jesus. To these believers, the angel of the Lord instructs them not to be afraid, but instead to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection to the Apostles so they can build Christ’s Church, founded on that good news of His Resurrection. As soon as they commit to doing this, they encounter the risen Lord and worship Him.
That’s a very clear template for all believers. We first believe in the Resurrection, and then, once committed to that, encounter the Risen Lord in prayer and worship. We approach His Resurrection with a holy fear – not paralyzed, but in grateful and reverent awe at the mercy and power of Christ to forgive us and lead us to Heaven. But mostly, we approach His Resurrection with joy: a joy that is not self-contained, but needs to go out, to tell others, after we have personally encountered this love stronger than death, how they can share in the Resurrection of Christ through His holy Church.
This is the mission of holy women – and men – of every generation. One which we are privileged to share. Alleluia! He is Risen!