He Finds Us
Easter Sunday. Fr Allan White preaches on the theology of the resurrection in art.
If you mention the word theology to many people they are liable to turn up their noses and imagine scholarly studies, containing shelf upon shelf of dusty and abstruse volumes, pored over by dessicated scholars who habitually dwell in the higher realms of abstraction. But it is actually possible to study theology through art.
The artistic traditions of the eastern and western Churches portray the resurrection differently. We westerners are very concerned with history and with events. We like to try and freeze the resurrection into an event.
The fact that there is no description in scripture of the process of the resurrection, far from inhibiting western artists, has actually given their imaginations free rein. You will all be familiar with the spectacular depictions of Christ emerging from the tomb in various states of undress, radiating power and majesty brandishing the standard of the resurrection, a red cross on a white ground, before him.
The eastern tradition does not show the event so much as its effect. The finest ikons show a majestic Christ, springing down amongst the ranks of the faithful dead, drawing them up in a glorious chain dance of joy. Christ lays hold of them all, and in the Spirit, draws them into the communion he enjoys with the Father, a communion that even death cannot sunder.
Jesus’ mission was physical. He reached out and touched especially those excluded from the communion of society; those who followed him had also, in some way, been touched by him. He had laid his hands on them, drawn them away from their nets, from their tax offices, from their hearths and homes.
His touch had caused them to leave everything and follow him. Their despairing conviction when faced with his death was that they would never again know his touch. The withdrawal of Jesus from their lives may involve their losing touch with each other.
When the women went to the tomb with spices, it was to embalm the body. They did not want it to wither away. They wanted to preserve it, to hold on to it, to stay in touch with it. But the precious body of the Lord was not there.
They meet the risen Christ when they have turned away from the tomb, and left everything behind them. Jesus discloses himself to them by greeting them or calling them by name. The spontaneous reaction that this evokes is the desire to hang on; the women fall at his feet and cling to him.
It is almost as if they wish to ensure that he stays there firmly planted in their midst. He will only stay there if they hang on to him.
The message of the resurrection is that Christ still lays hold of us. The way we can stay in touch with him is by allowing ourselves to be touched by him and in bringing his touch to others.
The only person who declines to touch him is in fact Thomas. Thomas was the one who clung to the literal reality of the death of Jesus. Others might have preferred to forget the reality of Jesus’s death, but Thomas could not: for him the wounds were real.
When confronted with the risen Christ, he declines the invitation to place his hands in the marks of his sufferings. There is no need. Thomas confesses that Jesus has laid hold on him; he has been touched by the risen Christ.
The lesson that the earliest generations of Christians learned is necessary for us too. We need to allow ourselves to be touched by Christ, to be drawn into communion with him.
The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas has a line in one of his poems:
He is such a fast
God, always before us and
Leaving us as we arrive.
We often imagine ourselves pursuing an elusive God, trying to find him as the treasure in the field. The message of the resurrection is that he finds us. The seekers at the tomb could not find him until he had found them. Redemption is allowing oneself to be found by God.