Easter and the Liberty of the Icon

If you examine an icon, you will notice that the figure in it will often be breaking out of the frame. Sometimes the hands, sometimes the halo, sometimes both are outside the border framing the image. That’s no accident. It’s part of what iconography is trying to get us to see: that the supernatural is breaking into our world, smashing the little diagrams of order we erect to define what God is and is not permitted to do.

It’s an apt image for Easter. As postmodernity continue to spin away from the gospel into nothingness we tend to buy more and more into some little human system of order. The curious process of “secularization” is all about this. Everybody talks as though “religion” (whatever that is) is fine so long as it is kept “private” (meaning “subjective and imaginary”). The basic contract our present culture wants to propose to the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: “Until we can eradicate you entirely, at least have the common courtesy to remain in some sort of cloud cuckoo land and stop imposing your values on the Real World.”

Some Christians are, regrettably, only to happy to sign this contract. Not a few of us maintain a barrier of varying thickness between the “spiritual” and the alleged “Real World”. It’s a temptation as old as Gnosticism. On the one hand, you have your smells and bells, your apparitions, your plaster saints who lived perfect lives, your miracles and your locutions. On the other hand, you have the “Real World” of the Evil Genius from Time Bandits—a world of lasers, computers, fast breeder reactors and subscriber trunk dialing. In the “Real World” of office politics, tax codes, carburetors, dirty politics, economics, ear wax, plumbing, homework, war, paperwork in triplicate and hard science all that pious goo about eternal life has no place. Save the comforting fantasies for Sunday morning or children’s bedtime stories. Right now we’ve engineering problems to solve, a war to fight, a candidate to elect, bills to pay and a lot of other real stuff to think about. We’ll try to give a little time to the pious goo when we get a minute—if we get a minute. But right now we need to pay attention to the “Real World”.

The entire point of Easter is that this whole narrative about the allegedly “Real World” has been destroyed and remade. No, the physical world is not “unreal” as some New Age prophets would say. But neither is it the final thing. Yes, all human activities—economics, politics, science, work, play and the countless ephemera that make up our lives—have their place in varying degrees. But they do not frame the icon of our lives. They are not what the story is about any more than words are what a novel is about. What we have always known in our heart of hearts is true: we are bigger than this world and it cannot contain us. That is why we are haunted by the immortal longing for More.

The incredible news of Easter is that Christ has broken and remade the frame. He has smashed into this world with its little diagrams of order—its rubbish agitprop that constantly tells us everything is economics, or everything is sex, or everything is power, or everything is natural selection, or everything is time, space, matter and energy—and brought News from the Outside: that God is love, that God is greater than the universe of constricting systems we know, and that God has defeated death so that we can break the little frame of our imprisoned lives and enter into the fullness of what it means to be human.

The mark of this is the Incarnation itself. God has become not a myth but a fact. He was crucified, not in Asgard, Olympus or Cloud Cuckoo Land but in Judea under a Roman bureaucrat as real as Michael Mukasey or John Foster Dulles. He stubbornly refused to be a private fantasy and instead became a very public nuisance. His death was not some stylized liturgical rite filled with painless symbolic gestures but a public execution requiring all the accoutrements of the “Real World” such as soldierly brutality, sleazy Machiavellian politicking, and the practical trades of the ironmonger and the woodcutter. No doubt some form had to be filled out in triplicate when it was all over.

The thing is (and this is a matter of history too) the tomb turns up empty three days later and all the explanations for it that the Real World attempts to provide are laughable.

The apostles rob the grave, phoney up some lie about meeting the Risen Christ, and then spend the rest of their lives hounded from pillar to post till they are tracked down and brutally murdered for their story? Right.

Cunning first century Jews invent an elaborate scheme to sucker their fellow first century Jews and then call a woman “out of whom seven demons had been driven” as the first witness of the Resurrection to their fellow members of an intensely patriarchal culture? Hey! Just what any cunning liar would do!

They hallucinated a ghost? Alrighty then! Mass hallucinations are already vanishingly rare enough. But mass hallucinations that eat fish? That’s so vanishingly rare you only trot it out for the special purpose of scraping the bottom of the “Explain away the Resurrection” barrel.

Jesus was actually buried in a shallow grave and eaten by wild dogs? Yeah, because when you call as witness to Jesus’ tomb no less than Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the very Sanhedrin that condemned Christ, he and his powerful family could not just instantly denounce you as a liar or anything.

Everybody (including the enemies of Christ) went to the wrong tomb? Brought to you by the makers and manufacturers of the “We’re 2000 years smarter than all those stupid ancient people” myth.

A Pharisee bent on destroying the Church saw ball lightning and stupidly mistook it for the Risen Christ? Mmmmhmmm. Next?

Over five hundred eyewitnesses saw and heard the Risen Christ. Happens every day!

No. The real explanation is this: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! He has broken through the little diagrams of order and the confining agitprop of this present darkness to set us beside him in the heavenly places, far above all rule, authority, power and dominion—all the principalities and powers of this world. He has freed us to recognize that the wise of this world have been made foolish by the folly of God and that the strength of this world has been emptied of power by the weakness of God. Easter has remade the universe. We no longer live in the confining diagrams of this world. We live in liberty of as icons of the Risen Christ!

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