An Easter message from old Cairo

The ancient Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus–Abu Serga for short–was built and rebuilt inside the Roman Fortress of Old … Continued

The ancient Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus–Abu Serga for short–was built and rebuilt inside the Roman Fortress of Old Cairo in Egypt. Along an inside wall is a series of sixteen icons detailing the life of Jesus. All of those scenes are quite recognizable for Western Christian eyes-with two exceptions.

KHALED DESOUKI

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Egyptian Christian Copts gather at the final resting place of Coptic Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, at the Bishoy Monastery in Beheira province, 150 kms northwest of Cairo, on March 20, 2012.

Since the scenes follow in chronological sequence from Annunciation to Pentecost, it is surprising to find an icon of the flight into Egypt outside the series at the end. But the crypt of this church contains a tiny pilgrimage chapel where tradition holds that Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus rested on their journey into Egypt. Hence that special emphasis on the flight icon. But there is one other image within the series that is not at all recognizable in Western Christian tradition.

This striking icon is in between the deposition from the cross of Jesus’ body and Doubting Thomas touching Jesus’ side. In that former scene the body of Jesus is being lowered from the cross into the arms of Mary and the mourning women. In the latter, Thomas, surrounded by the other disciples, reaches to touch the wounded right side of Jesus. In Western tradition we would expect–between those two sequential scenes–an image of the Resurrection.

We also know how that should appear. Think, for example, of those magnificent, well-muscled, semi-nudes by Titian in 1522 or Rubens in 1612. Jesus appears from the tomb, towers over his soldier-guards, but he appears utterly and splendidly alone.

The icon in Abu Serga Church, however, is very, very different. Jesus is in the center of the image, haloed, fully clothed, and carrying a typical patriarchal cross in his left hand. He is moving swiftly to the viewer’s left and that motion billows his cloak to the right. He bends down gently and delicately, grasps the right hand of Adam with his own right hand, and pulls him out of his sepulcher. Beside Adam is a much younger Eve also reaching out to Jesus, and behind her is Abel. On the right side of the icon-balancing that triad on the left-is first, David, crowned and bearded, then Solomon, crowned but unbearded, and behind them, John the Baptist.

If Western Christians were asked to imagine six persons who would rise with Jesus, I doubt if any of those–except maybe John–would be on our list. But precisely those six and no others–two ancestors, two rulers, and two martyrs–are what you would find from one end to the other across all of Eastern Christianity. As the imagery grew, Adam and Eve came first, then David and Solomon were added, next came John the Baptist, and finally Abel.

That image-in all its varieties, stages, and options-is the Resurrection of Jesus (Anastasis in Greek) as far as Eastern Christianity is concerned. Resurrection is never about Jesus alone but always about Jesus with–at least–Adam and Eve. But if those two rise with Jesus, who does not? Do they not represent the whole human race? From Russia to Egypt, from the Tiber to the Tigris, from Greeks to Serbs to Syriacs, that is the iconic image of Eastern Christianity’s Resurrection.

In Western Christianity we know that image, of course, but we call it the Harrowing of Hell-harrowing is an old English word for robbing–or maybe even the Descent into Limbo. By whatever term, it is safely separated from the Resurrection itself, as in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into Hell. On the third day he rose from the dead.” It is, as it were, just something to keep Jesus from being bored on Holy Saturday but certainly not our Easter Sunday.

The East has retained a vision of the Resurrection that is in far, far greater continuity with pre-Christian Jewish understanding of the general resurrection. Even when Christian Jews held that the general resurrection had started with Jesus, it had to include those who had died before him (1 Corinthians 15:20; Matthew 27:52). Since the Resurrection was about God’s justice, it could not apply only to Jesus. He was not the first-nor the last–devout Jew to die on a Roman cross, to die as a martyr, to die for justice or from injustice.

Finally, faced with that Eastern vision of a communal resurrection as God’s great peace- and-reconciliation encounter with the human race, how utterly inept is our Western debate over a single empty tomb at Easter. If we do not accept metaphor, parable, and poetry, in Eastern Christianity’s vision of the resurrection, how many empty tombs must we imagine. If Adam and Eve, who not?

John Dominic Crossan is a scholar of Christianity and author, most recently, of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.

  • ccnl1

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years to include Professor Crossan’s many books on the historic Jesus)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • persiflage

    D. Crossan,

    Thanks for reifying the idea once again that religion is myth, symbolism, and metaphor, rather than actual events in human history.

    Believers seem to be stuck on the idea that sacred texts are chronicles of the supernatural rather than elaborate works of the human imagination, that seek to partition the sacred from the profane.

    Scholars of religion can only tell it like it is – without expecting to make a dent in impenetrable religious beliefs of the literal kind.