Finding the East in Easter

The Resurrection is arguably the central tenet of Christianity. It’s what’s most important.

Jesus died, and he rose again.

Pretty simple. Pretty straightforward. Pretty easy to understand (if not to digest).

Or that’s what I thought before I embarked on a Lenten journey to learn more about the Resurrection.

It happened, quite delightfully, with a book. It was “Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision,” by Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan and his wife, Sarah Sexton Crossan (HarperOne, $39.99). In it, the authors travel the world, examining Resurrection art.

Easy enough.

Or that’s what I thought.

This Lent, with the help of this book, I’ve come to realize that my understanding of the Resurrection was about as in-depth as a child’s board book about “Pride and Prejudice.” In fact, Easter may never be the same for me again.

What is the Resurrection?

Isn’t the Resurrection a one-time event, a historical reality that, yes, affects me but no, does not really change anything?

In the Nicene Creed, every Sunday at Mass, we profess our belief: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

And yet, there’s more to the Resurrection than this, and that’s what impacted my Lent this year in a most interesting way.

The Resurrection is never described in the Gospels. We get the events all around it, witnesses who see evidence of it, but not a word about the actual moment of the Resurrection itself.

Resurrection
An altar stands over the place of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The chapel is Greek Orthodox, part of the standing agreement between the Christian churches that jointly operate the church. Beneath this chapel is Adam’s Chapel, where the skull of the first man is said to be buried, a reflection of the theology of the Resurrection that speaks of Jesus descending into hell and appearing to the dead of the Old Testament. Shutterstock

And so, over the millennia since Christ first stepped (or leapt?) from the tomb, it’s been left up to various artistic interpretations.

As it happens, there’s a pattern to the way people have understood the Resurrection, and you can make quite detailed portrayals and charts of the traditions that have resulted.

‘Anastasis’ and Resurrection

The authors of “Resurrecting Easter” identified two major Resurrection traditions, direct and indirect. Within each of these, there are two main subtraditions, so that you end up with four main resurrection traditions: indirect empty tomb tradition and indirect risen vision tradition, and direct individual resurrection tradition and direct universal resurrection tradition.

If that sounds like a puzzle, stick with me. I found myself entranced, because as a Western Christian, I’m as illiterate about the beauty of the Eastern Church’s tradition as most Westerners are.

“IMAGE'

One of the first bits to learn is the word anastasis. It’s Greek and the literal translation is “up-rising.” It’s a word and a concept that the Crossans have formed into my mind, associated with the Resurrection.They first noticed it on a trip where they found the word used in the English description for the Resurrection at one of the churches they visited. What made this notable was that the other languages used phrasing that depicted descending downward, whereas anastasis clearly indicates a rising upward.

At some point, the Resurrection tradition of East and West diverged: The West has a clear understanding of Christ’s Resurrection individually, while the East maintains a universal tradition.

Think of the Easter images you’re familiar with. If you’re like me, steeped in Western Christianity, then it involves Jesus and an empty tomb. There’s no Hades or hell involved (though, as I recently learned, according to the Catechism, there actually is!). There’s no Adam or humanity involved.

And I’m not talking at the point at which Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the garden, or the point when the disciples see his empty linens. This is at the point of the Resurrection itself, which no one human witnessed.

The difference between the universal and individual Resurrection traditions is worth noting. In the universal tradition, it’s maintained that Christ didn’t just rise himself, but that he restored creation to what it was before the fall of Adam and Eve. Easter is a communal event, one that happens with Jesus and all of humanity with him.

The individual tradition

The individual tradition holds that Jesus rose himself. Alone.

There’s not a right or wrong here, though it can start to feel like there is. What examining the artwork and journey the resurrection and anastasis imagery seems to make evident is that humanity’s understanding of this event has also changed.

It seems that in the Easter Exultet tradition the individual resurrection begins to take hold in the West. The Exultet is a Latin hymn that’s proclaimed at the Easter Vigil Mass and has been for nearly a millennium in the Western Catholic tradition.

Between 1150 and 1200, based on images they found adorning a scroll of the Exultet in Troia, Italy, the Crossans maintain that the “West opts definitively for an individual Easter, just as the East continues definitively with a universal Easter.”

They base this on the images that adorn the scroll: They are, without doubt, based on the individual tradition, and from this scroll onward, the art and imagery supports an individual Resurrection tradition.

Theology of the Descent
crucifixion
A mosaic depicted the crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Shutterstock

Much theology of the death and resurrection of Jesus in on display in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of these events.

But what does that mean?

The conclusion the Crossans seem to make is one of semantics, if I’ve understood — and again, that’s a big if — their words and the rich imagery throughout their book correctly. They write, “When the West’s individual resurrection appears with Christ physically present …, the East’s universal resurrection is serenely retained but permanently downgraded from ‘Ascent into Heaven for All’ to ‘Descent into Hell for One.’ Anastasis and Resurrection are both present, but in this final step they are now separated into two events in the West, while in the East they always remain a single event.”

After reading “Resurrecting Easter” and the relevant Gospel passages, I turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There I found just what I wanted in a section that began at paragraph 638. And then I noticed that the heading of the page was “Paragraph 2. On the Third Day He Rose from the Dead.”

Flipping back, I saw that “Paragraph 1,” which began at paragraph 631 was headed “Christ Descended into Hell.”

The Catechism reads: “The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’ presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. ... But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” (See sidebar.)

Suddenly, the debates I had encountered from the Crossans’ book made sense, even as I realized more than ever just how little of this I knew. But right there, in the Catholic Catechism, was the Eastern notion of Jesus raising everyone toward Heaven in the form of his descent to find Adam, the first man, and all righteous people from the Old Testament, all of them awaiting the Resurrection.

East vs. West

What was most amazing about this realization was how a truth upheld by my own religious tradition could receive such a rich, elaborate, even celebratory treatment in someone else’s religious tradition, in this case Eastern Christians.

Even before the schism that broke communion between churches of the East and West in 1054, there were differences between the two, such as the use of unleavened bread in the West and differing fasting rules.

Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t view the authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope, the same way Catholics do, and while their divine liturgy may seem similar to a Catholic Mass, they are rites that have developed separately for centuries.

As I processed this, I encountered an online video profile of Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is one of the leading Catholic experts of Eastern Christianity. In this interview produced by his religious community, Father Roberson noted, “There are these different traditions in the Church. ... Sometimes the other traditions have put something better than they have in the West.” Which is precisely the point the Crossans are making about Easter!

Of course there are other differences between Catholic and Orthodox Christians when it comes to the Resurrection. Perhaps most notable is the different way East and West calculate the date of Easter. To my Western mind, the Orthodox are a week “late” with their Easter, though to them, we are jumping the gun and celebrating too early. Though both East and West calculate the date the same way, the East uses the Julian calendar, while the West uses the Gregorian calendar. This means that, most years, the Western celebration of Easter is well underway before those in the East have started their celebrations.

To Father Roberson’s point, though, I’ve found myself somewhat entranced by the iconography and practices I’ve been learning about from a colleague who’s an Orthodox Christian.

At surface level, things look a lot more intense as an outsider looking East. Lent is a time for fasting from, well, everything good to eat, near as I can tell: all forms of meat (including fish), dairy, eggs, etc. And it gets even more intense during Holy Week. My colleague related: “A fellow parishioner in Lompoc, California, once said, ‘At my house, we just drink bleach during Holy Week.’ [He was] joking, I think.”

There’s definitely a difference between East and West! I’m groaning about meatless Fridays (which I mostly observe the rest of the year, too) and about this or that, and my Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters are deep into the desert of bread and water only. It definitely gives me pause — and a new appreciation for the rich breadth and depth Christianity offers us.

What the Resurrection is

My main takeaway, one that still has me shaking my head a bit: The Resurrection is not only — was not only — an individual event. It isn’t just about Jesus dying and rising, though that is the main point.

From journeying to various churches and ancient sites with the Crossans, I came to appreciate the universal nature of the Resurrection. This transforms the event from one that involves only Jesus into one that involves him plus humanity. As humanity’s savior. Images of Jesus stepping on Hades’ head and holding Adam’s arm highlight how Resurrection is about the redemption of humanity, about the two steps of going into Hell and rising again. Here in the West, we see those as distinct events, while in the East, those are merged together under the title anastasis.

Resurrection
Jesus Christ is shown rising from the grave by Fra Angelico (1387-1455) in Munich, Germany. Shutterstock

The Crossans explain: “[The universal resurrection as part of God’s kingdom on earth] is process and not just instant; it is program and not just instantaneous event. It begins with Jesus, but cannot be individual for him alone. It must be universal for all those who have died before him. Easter is not an individual ‘Ascension’ for Jesus, but the start of the universal ‘Resurrection’ with Jesus.”

They continue, highlighting that “the Eastern image of Christ’s universal resurrection is in closer conformity to and continuity with the original Christian-Jewish meaning of ‘Resurrection’ than is the Western — contradictory — image of Jesus’s individual resurrection.”

An ongoing experience

Every weekend, we have the opportunity to reflect on the Resurrection: on what it means and where it leads us. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to take it for granted. We have the season of Lent and Easter every single year.

And yet, there’s more. Having read “Resurrecting Easter,” I find myself wanting to go back in silence, to sit with the images and the lessons the icons can teach me. I want to savor the powerful tension between the idea of an individual and universal resurrection.

The Resurrection is a gift, much as the Incarnation is. It is God holding his arms wide, through his Son, and beckoning me to a life of union with him.

I’m not sure that I’ve moved beyond my board book understanding, but I was blessed by the images and iconography that inspired this Lenten journey and Easter revelation for me.

Sarah Reinhard is content network manager for OSV and curator of the Triple Take weekday newsletter: http://bit.ly/TripleTakeOSV