This icon of the harrowing of Hell is one of two main icons in the Easter Tradition. Liturgically it happens Saturday night but theologically it happens on Easter and beyond…every day…every moment. A friend on Mount Athos wrote it while I was hiking there on my second visit to the peninsula.
Jesus steps out of the mandorla shape – the shape of an almond – we get the word “almond” from “mandorla“ which is the shape of not only the almond, but also the shape of what happens when two circles intersect and overlap a bit. The idea of the mandorla-space out of which Jesus so often comes in icons, is that Jesus represents, and indeed is, the space-holder of the overlap between heaven and earth. The shape is also, quite literally, the shape of the female anatomy through which human life is born and from which it comes, screams notwithstanding.
With the Baptiser and kings on the left and the first innocent (Abel) in mint green on the right; Jesus enters the world of life with wide, female, life-bearing hips accentuated by the cincture of gut-strength. This is dynamos. This is power and passion and determination. His whole body is a corkscrew of power as he pulls Adam and Eve from their slumber and non-wakefulness. He straddles hell and evil is caricatured as a pin-headed diapered guy falling among the implements of the crucifixion into blackness.
The focus of the icon is Jesus’ life-bearing hips and apparently, when this was unveiled in its monastery in what is now Istanbul, it caused a bit of a stir. I am tired of “Jesus-meek-and-mild-is-love” sermons. Jesus is unbridled power, passion, extacy, orgasm, life.
This feast is not one of chocolate and eggs. Nor is it one of hymns and lilies or forsythia and trumpets. It is rather a feast of dynamos and awakening. Jesus strides into our hells to burst them asunder. The hells of evil in the marketplace. The hells of evil in the abusive marriage. The hells of the evil in some ecclesial power mongering. The hells of evil in manipulation and lies. Jesus arrives flanked in community, straddling the darkness (which remains) but full also of light.
For me, this year, Easter will be a day of horseback riding in the New Mexican desert, some pottery, eggplant curry and wrestling with Kai-the-dog. Hell isn’t just vanquished. Hell is empty. And woven into our days occasionally too like a bad after-taste. Original sin is a ridiculous and offensive to the intellect and soul as devils in lava with pitchforks. No. evils exist, and have since that day of resurrection; not just prior to it – after it too. Jesus did not rise into a Jacquie Lawson greeting card world of rainbows and unicorns pooping malted milk balls. Rather, what is meaningful, is that with the resurrection comes the release into which we may awaken if we so choose.
The ecclesial dirty secret is that much of our Easter ways have emerged from druidic ones – from earth-love. An overlay of sorts. So perhaps Easter is best spent in church. Or, also, in a forest, on a tree stump, with The One whose lips no longer tremble in crucifixion but kiss with longing for connection, for gathering, for with-ness and for voicing peace on earth and mercy-mild.