Easter, icons, historicism and liturgical time
I have just passed through the great Triduum, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day, in Emmaus, the place where the risen Christ made himself known in the ‘breaking of bread’, completing the revelation of the new Christian Liturgy of the Eucharist.
It is easy to slip into a sense of historical reflection, to think of the disciples ending up on this very spot after hours spent in the company of Jesus yet only at the last moment realising just who he was. Using the common techniques of spiritual reflection on Biblical texts, through using my imagination I could have transported myself back in a sort of time machine to when these events happened. But to do so would have been a serious temptation to break away from the Liturgical reality that Christ established here all those centuries ago.
Why do I say that? This short essay is an attempt to answer that question.
Christ IS risen. Not WAS risen. We don’t celebrate a memory of a past event, something come and gone. We celebrate the contemporary reality we live in. It’s a subtle use of a tense but quite deliberate. Christ as God is beyond time and everything he does is beyond the limits of time, it’s an eternal ‘now’.
The resurrection established a new paradigm in human reality, a fusion of time with eternity, that is of time with what we might call ‘beyond time’, something without beginning or end embracing that which is finite, thus opening us to the experience of an eternal now. Death was a definition of time where reality passes from existence into non existence. It was the ultimate end point, which Jesus abolished through catching up our created and mortal humanity into his Divinity. By Jesus walking out of the tomb he transformed our existence totally. The challenge was, and is, for us to embrace this transformed horizon and to live with our sights set on the eternal rather than the transient. The challenge is to grasp that this transformation has taken place and is actually true, and to allow that to impact on our conscious way of living,
The resurrection was thus not simply a moment in time, but an eternal moment, the moment that transformed the human experience of being alive from one of passing through to one of life that is eternal, as though time is being stopped as that moment remains accessible from every moment of time to come and indeed that has passed.
Living in the context of a physicality that remains to be finally transformed is a complex and demanding challenge. We await the creation of a new heaven and new earth, one where the spiritual dominates the physical and not the other way round as is the case today. We await the fulfilment of all things, that is the final working out of this moment of transformation we know as the resurrection into the very fibre of the whole cosmos, physical and spiritual, the world of men and the world of angels.
The Christian Liturgy preempts this experience through the employment of potent symbols, ones which not simply point to other things but in themselves give us a taste of them. From ancient times Christian teachers have spoken of the Liturgy as the wedding of heaven and earth, of the physical space around the altar being, to use a contemporary term, a ‘thin place’, made so by the transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist into Christ’s risen Body and Blood. The Liturgy celebrated on earth is an echo of and a participation in the constant act of praise that ascends to God the Father from the heart of Christ and all that is United with him, angels, saints, cherubim and seraphim, and the people on Earth that gather in him through baptism.
The Saints have long had visions that pierce this reality, and miracles continue to attest to this. Christ continues to be present as on that Easter morning in every celebration of this great and wonderful Liturgy. As Christians enact his command to do this and rehearse the culmination of this transformation of fallen humanity in obedience to his command, so the Lord is right there, in their midst, just as he was on that first Easter morning. Every Sunday celebrates this, is an Easter Day, as is every Eucharist in and of itself. The Eucharist more than anything else defines the Christian life, is it’s Centre and it’s fountain.
The call to communion, to receive this transfigured and transfiguring Bread and Wine is thus a call to a deeper communion with the Risen Lord, to allow our experience, our vision, our desire to be shaped by this. It is the foretaste of eternity, and propels us into that reality where time has ceased and eternity has begun, a dawn time, a moment where greater realities than we can imagine have begun to be formed in us and which will culminate in the transformation of all things at the end of time. Hence why receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, without being disposed to this transformation can result in an interior dislocation and even as St Paul warns us, death.
Within Protestant traditions this whole focus has been abandoned and it has been reduced to a historical reflection, a travesty of the resurrection, a denial of the very nature of the Resurrection and its impact on time and on humanity here and now. It has reduced everything to the most banal symbols, locating Christ in our imagining, in our thoughts and emotions and denied the means for him to transform our actual being in a holistic and material way, both physically and in terms of our experience of time. Faith has been emptied to be a blind longing for a halcyon time consigned to our imagining, not a desire built on a real and actual foretaste of things to come.
Yet even in western Catholicism this historicism has woven itself into popular devotions and many of the experiments with the Liturgy since the Second Vatican Council have erred in a similar manner. Popularly this has been experienced as a purgation of various devotions, such as kneeling for communion, the abolition of the extended fast, the eradication of real beauty in music and so forth but at its heart has been the reduction of Liturgy to words, to ideas thought about, read, and spoken. This focus on the texts has been at the expense of the sense of the imminence of the holy, a certain encouragement of banality and a focus on making people feel comfortable in their ordinariness. Not all of this is necessarily bad or harmful, but because it masks a collective move away from a sense of the Eucharist as the actual transforming moment of Resurrection its cumulative impact is devastating at many different levels.
Nor is its impact restricted to the Liturgy per se, but upon all those aspects of Christian life which originate with its sense of transcending time. For example, religious life, with its focus of living with the reference to the eternal life that is to come, or the sense of preparing for a happy death through the use of such tools as regular confession. Without the sense of the transformation of time into eternity as a lived foretaste open to the Christian in this present life embodied in the Liturgy all these things loose their force and dwindle away, as has been devastatingly demonstrated in Catholicism in various western countries.
My own perception of this is of art in the Liturgy, or should I better say the abandonment of the art of the Liturgy. Yes, there is an art form which is shaped by and for the Liturgy, distinctive and authoritative. It’s common name is iconography, and it is most commonly experienced in the Liturgical context of the eastern churches. Its demise in the west helps I think to trace the origins of the more general demise of the resurrection perspective on time, life and Liturgy.
In the 13th century there was a move in Western Christian life to engage the emotions and senses through engaging the imagination, in order to facilitate a deeper engagement especially among ordinary, uneducated folk with the Person of Christ. Perhaps the best earliest example is the devotion to the poor Christ in the Christmas crib as popularised, or perhaps invented, by St Francis of Assisi. Here the crib was to evoke in those who saw it not so much the majesty of Christ now so much as the Christ of history, of the moment in time when he was poor, helpless and born in the humiliating straw and stench of the stable in Bethlehem.
Great effort was put into enabling the believer to grasp the humanity of the Christ Child, the humility, the tenderness. The Virgin Mother was shown increasingly as a younger girl, herself of poor means, rather than as the royal Queen of heaven, draped in imperial purple and lain out on a beautiful mattress of the finest red and golds. The Christ Child was no longer given the face of the ancient of days, but shown as an oridanary baby just as he would have looked all those years ago. This I called devotional rather than Liturgical art. This all took place within the art of the church building, at first as an occasional innovation, but in time it came to first dominate and then replace the iconographic art of the liturgical space, especially I suspect after the Black Death and the popularity of the devotion to Christ’s sufferings on the Cross and the growing popular devotion to the Wounds of Christ and the Way of the Cross.
After a millennium there was a need I would accept to reconnect with the historical moments of Christ’s life and death, and to renew the rather heavily imperialised iconography of both the eastern and western churches as they had become more and more entertwined with the life of the states and especially the ideas and exercise of monarchy, serfdom and chivalry. It was a revolutionary movement to liberate Christian art from the subliminal messages of endorsement of the imperial ideal by God himself, and the opening up of a Christendom for a more humanistic vision of the human person and society. However, these developments which focused on the realities of the present gradually weakened the sense of the immenance of the eternal.
Perhaps the greatest blow came at the Reformation, where the sense of the transfiguration of time was blown away almost completely. The whole order of the world and society around this transfiguration of time and space was dismissed as superstition, the physical was derided as fallen and sinful, and the dominance of words and ideas replaced a sense of the engagement with the spiritual with more than the interior life. Religion became something reduced to the interior and invisible, of thoughts and ideas, of emotions and psychology. Works, that is deeds, were deemed irrelevant and faith alone mattered. This shattered the sense of Liturgical time and all the churches East and West have, I believe, suffered enormously because of it.
The renewal of Christianity will come, I believe, when we regain a sense of this Resurrected time, of the displacement of death, the end point of things, with eternity. When we re-focus on the space of the Liturgy as an encounter such as I described at the outset of this piece, then we can regain credibility with those seeking the Truth that we find in the words and the Person of Christ. In English we have a phrase, out of sight, out of mind, and it is no mistake that the Christian faith has been irradicated in those countries where Christian imagery of any kind was abandoned, and where eventually even Catholic art came to be reduced to the level of the devotional and the merely symbolic. The reconversion of Europe must take place at the level of the restoration of the Resurrection as the defining reality affecting all our life, but first and foremost how we celebrate the Liturgy, because here we have the experience of Christ Risen and time transfigured at least as a foretaste. To do this eastern iconography offers us an invaluable insight and tool with which to shape the Eucharistic space visually in terms of a language shaped by the transformation of time and which has developed over a millennia and a half, as well as being mandated in the seventh ecumenical council. We have the tools, but do we have the wisdom and courage to do it?
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!