Ages ago I was a fan of a Sci-fi TV show called Stargate in which people travelled through what they called a wormhole to other places and times – and most of the time they were all lucky to get back alive. One of the phrases that crept into the scrip again and again is “We never leave our people behind.”
I guess this term is a reassurance to anyone involved in a military-kind of operation – we all abhorr the idea of a casualty being left behind on foreign soil.
I would like to explore this as an idea to help us understand something that happened at Easter.
Now, we all know what happened at Easter, don’t we?
Jesus was put through three kangaroo-court trials – Caiphus, Pilate and King Herod – and in the end he was executed as a blasphemer, hardly a Capital offence to the Romans.
So, he died on Good Friday, after which he “descended to the dead” as we affirm in the Apostle’s Creed and “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, (where) he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Now I want to know what you think happened when he “descended to the dead.”
I have to admit that in my studies at Bible College we did not examine the notion that Jesus descended to the dead in order to fight a cosmic battle against the evil one – we call him The Devil, Lucifer or Satan.
Even though such an idea is not present in the words of the Creed, I think we have developed the idea as a result of some of the other New Testament writings which do convey the sense of a cosmic battle having happened, and of Jesus winning that Battle, and of the Resurrection being the foundational evidence of his victory over evil in the person of the Devil.
This icon first appeared as a mosaic in the Monastry of Daphni in Athnens nearly a thousand years ago. This is a re-written version of the Icon by the Rev’d Dr Bob Gallagher and it is called “The Anastasis” or “The Resurrection”.
There are many other forms of this Icon that have minor variations, but I would like us to look at this one and examine the story it is telling.
The central figure is, of course, Jesus who is lifting up through the gates of hell, which are now broken, the two seminal humans – Adam and Eve. Through these two, sin and death entered into the human experience and their presence in this icon represents the whole human race.
So, Jesus is lifting Adam and Eve out of the place of the dead while, at the same time, trampling on the gates of hell and breaking the power of evil – Evil is represented here by the strong man that Jesus is walking over and you will notice that he is now bound up with chains. That little space where he is lying is filled with important imagery, also, because there you can see the broken gates and the discarded key and these also represent the liberation Jesus has now achieved for us.
Who are the other people in the Icon?
On the left we have a father and son combination – King David & King Solomon – signifying Jesus’ own royalty; and there on the right we have a scruffy looking John the Baptist in green, blessing Jesus as “The Lamb of God.”
There are two important aspects to do with the Cross in this Icon. Firstly, it is placed between Adam and Christ as a way of saying that Jesus puts right what began in Adam; that the way to life is through the Cross.
Secondly, you can see that the bottom of the cross is firmly placed on the neck of the Evil One indicating his total subjugation by the Cross.
As you look at this part of the Icon you will notice that The Evil One has a firm grip on Adam’s foot and is clearly unwilling to let him go. By this the writer of the Icon is saying to us that the experience of receiving new life through Christ does not make us immune from sin.
Finally, take a look at the backgrounds. In the lower part of the Icon we have dark and deathly colours for the place of the dead. The upper part, however, is golden; incorruptible, eternal and blazing with light.
Now you know the origin of the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Icons are not portraits. They do not capture a moment in time. They tell a whole story.
The reason I wanted us to look at this today is that it opens the door for us to gain perhaps a new, but ancient, understanding of what was happening in this Easter.
Let’s think about the implications of the Genesis story of Adam & Eve. God spent a great deal of effort creating the world and the people on it, and they were regarded as the pinnacle of God’s creation. The catechism that has been used for generations to prepare people for baptism says that people were created for God’s pleasure and company.
The story we call The Fall in Genesis 3 is really saying that through their sin God was deprived of the pleasure of the company of those first humans – and as a consequence, they were consigned to a place beyond God’s reach, in a way, the place of the dead.
But this Icon tells us in a very vivid way that just like the Stargate people, God does not leave his people behind.
Through Jesus, God has broken the doors that kept him out of the place of the dead and freed all those who up until that time had been consigned to it.
And now, all who follow in Jesus’ way can experience liberation from the powers that would otherwise keep them in that place of the dead.
This is what Easter is about – the liberation from the place of the dead of all those who would follow in Jesus’ way.
Now that has got to be worth celebrating with the longest long-weekend we have each year.