Christ’s-Descent-into-Hell

Rowan Williams on the Easter complex:

The pivotal event [of Christianity] is the whole of that Easter complex, if you like, not just the resurrection, which is why a realistic representation of the crucifixion on it’s own won’t say what has to be said. And curiously, along the history of the church, the way it’s been done in the church’s liturgy and art very often doesn’t seem very realistic in that sense.

You walk through the experience of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in a sort of ritual way: picking up a bit of the gospels here, a bit of the prophets and the psalms there; performing certain ritual acts (in the Catholic tradition particularly); watching through the night; participating in a very curious and distinctive liturgy for Good Friday, with the bare cross being brought in and unveiled. All of that is an attempt to say what a mere recitation of the story, or a mere photograph, couldn’t say.

I remember years ago somebody saying to me that, given the choice between having a video of the Sermon on the Mount, and having half an hour with St Peter after his betrayal, he’d go for the latter because you would see in the complexities, the changes, the tensions, that Peter had undergone, something you wouldn’t see just on a video of the sermon – which would land you back in all the problems of what would you really see there, what would you really hear.

Simply trying to uncover the kernel of historical truth fails to grasp the truth of the Gospel. It can’t, in Williams’s words, “say what has to be said.”

Williams goes to note the Eastern Orthodox tradition as a telling example. Rather than depicting life-like images of Christ rising from the tomb, Eastern Orthodoxy instead depicts the harrowing of hell, images of “Jesus in Hell rescuing Adam and Eve, standing astraddle over a great pit, and grabbing Adam and Eve, pulling them out of their tombs.”

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