Many of us learned our faith from catechisms and sermons and pictures on the windows and walls of our churches. Xavier Leon-Dufour begins his classic work (Resurrection and the Message of Easter, New York, 1971) remembering trying to reconcile images he saw on the church windows of his youth with the gospel accounts he studied later. In art Jesus often appears as a revived corpse, his body and clothing brighter than before..
The church window above, based on Matthew’s Gospel, changes the way the gospel tells the resurrection story. Similar images appear often, especially in the Easter season. Jesus risen from the dead appears like Lazarus raised from the tomb. But resurrection is different from resuscitation.
“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.” Mt 28,1-5
According to Matthew, an angel descends from heaven, rolls back the stone and strikes fear in the guards at the tomb. Our stained glass window depicts Jesus Christ stepping from the tomb striking fear into the guards. The angel becomes an onlooker wearing green, the color of hope. Jesus looks rather like he did before he died and he would be recognized immediately.
The gospels, however, indicate he was changed. Mary Magdalene and the others have difficulty recognizing him– he’s changed. The disciples on the way to Emmaus recognize him after he quotes the scriptures and, finally, breaks bread with them. The disciples at the lakeshore in Galilee are not sure who is he, until they eat with him.
The Risen Lord has entered another realm of existence. He is risen. He remains with us mysteriously. He does not blind us with light, as he did Paul the Apostle. He does not appear in bodily form, as he was before his death. He comes to us risen, risen indeed. Now, we meet him in the scriptures and the “breaking of the bread.” Also, just as mysteriously, we see him in the least. “When did we see you?” is the question raised at judgment.
Early Christian art as seen in the 4th century portrayal from catacombs below, recognizing the mystery of the Resurrection, used symbolism to represent the Risen Christ. Jesus entered a new existence in his resurrection. It’s hard for artists and for us to depict that existence.
I mentioned Xavier Leon-Dufour earlier. Here’s what he said about the Risen Jesus:
“To speak of the resurrection of Jesus is to affirm that death has been conquered in one man at least: and to say that he lives forever is boldly to locate oneself at the end of time. It is a challenge for the unbeliever to revise his idea of life: for if one man is alive forever after his death, why not should the same be so for all men at the end of time? Why should there not be after death an existence called heaven?” In that existence “life is changed, not ended.”