The Alpha and the Omega

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was
and who is to come, the Almighty [pantocrator]” (Rev. 1:8).

 “You judge your people with righteousness and new life abounds.”
Prayer of Dedication by Rev. James G. Kirk

This past February my husband and I spent two weeks in Sicily. Our “home base” for that time was stunning Cefalú on the northern coast, with its famous Norman cathedral built in 1131, commissioned by King Roger II. In the cathedral’s apse is one of the most famous mosaic icons of Christ Pantocrator. “Pantocrator” can be translated as “Ruler” or “Sustainer” of all, an idea that, if you peruse the internet quickly, you will see described as an apt image, borrowed from imperial Rome, for an imperial church. It is sometimes even translated as “king.”

But this Easter I’d like to propose that following Jesus, even as a king, is somewhat more complex than most Wikipedia articles and travel guidebooks suggest, and one way we can be certain of that is the widespread popularity through the ages of the Christ Pantocrator image. To put it more personally, I might be the Christian least likely to be attracted by empire in any place or in any form, so I don’t think that’s the reason I felt drawn to stop in to visit that Christ Pantocrator twice a day. I would guess it has been the same for other Christians who have been drawn to that image, either in Cefalú or many other places, throughout the Christian world.

Even a brief gaze at the icon begins to reveal its complexity. The Christ in Pantocrator images carry a book of scripture in his left hand. I am not an expert in icons, but I understand that if the book is closed, the image is technically a Pantocrator, and if the book is open to reveal a passage of scripture, as in Cefalú, the image is a slight variant usually called “Christ the Teacher.” Therein lies the beginning of the depth of the image in Cefalú: is this Christ merely the image of conquering Norman power in religious dress, or is he more? And if he is more, then what does he have to teach?

So Pantocrator sometimes translates as “king”. But what if the point of using it, like the imperial titles and slogans that are applied to Christ throughout the New Testament (“savior,” “prince of peace,” and so on), is to subvert imperial pretensions?  When we hear phrases like “all things,” we tend to think “all things human.” But the phrase is repeated enough in the scriptural witness that I do think it means all things. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). Aside from a line or two in Virgil, even the masterful propagandists of Augustus dared not make such claims.

How do we, limited as our horizons are, even begin to consider this idea that “in him all things hold together”? In Cefalú, the book Jesus carries is open to the Gospel of John 8:12, which reads in both Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in darkness but will have the light of life.” A lock of Jesus’ hair is being gently blown across his forehead. The better guidebooks will point out this realistic detail as one of the great artistic triumphs of this particular image, and indeed it is dazzlingly that.

But the lock of hair and the passage from John reminded me that light often represents the gentle presence of God but it rarely gets the credit that Elijah’s moving “gentle breeze” does. Both images suggest an all-encompassing and ever-present reality of God’s sustaining love to which we often choose not to attend and yet most of us wish to experience as fully as possible. Some have recently found the appreciation of the cosmic Christ in the everyday expressed poignantly in what is now referred to collectively as the Celtic tradition. In a meditation on an Easter pilgrimage she took in Wales, Rev. Mary Earle tells us that

[i]n Welsh, the ordinary word for universe is “bydysawd,” which means “that which is baptized.” All that has come into being—every particle of matter, every creature, every person, every star and planet—is encompassed in the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising…The Celtic Church, following the teachings of the early councils of the church, understood that this all-encompassing, uncreated Light of Christ, the Light that breaks into the tombs of our hearts and the graves of our bodies, is eternally present in all times and in all places.

I expect this is what the image of our Pantocrator meant all along to those not looking through eyes and hearts desiring dominance, a deeply benevolent sustainer of all who loves so much as to join us in darkness and help us find the gentle light in all. That is a far cry from the “peace through victory” that is a maxim of any form of empire. I once heard Daniel Berrigan say, in response to a question that was desperate with the desire for the United States always to win in all ways and at any violent cost, “Maybe we just need to change our idea of what winning means.” That sentence changed the course of my life, because I suddenly understood that domination is never true power, not at all related to God’s power.

So now I see this Christ Pantocrator with the blowing lock of hair and the words of light ruling more like the Celtic St. Melangell. The sixth century Irish princess fled her father and his plans for her marriage, becoming a hermit in Wales. She was given land for a monastery, as the story goes, by a prince who found her sheltering under her robe the rabbit he and his hounds were hunting.

So maybe it’s time to stop rolling our collective Catholic eyes at rabbits as a “pagan” Easter symbol (mea culpa). Maybe care for the most vulnerable creatures and recognition of our oneness with them—created by God for himself and from his love and redeemed together with all creation—is in fact at the heart of Christ’s resurrection and rule. And perhaps the righteous judgment that comes from our great Pantocrator is the ever-flowing gift of new life, even when we can’t quite discern either the light or the life in a particular situation. The Pantocrator images represent the constancy of God’s gentle sustenance, symbolized especially in this annual feast of Easter.

At the end of their pilgrimage, Rev. Earle writes that the pilgrims were given a poem by the Welsh poet, Saunders Lewis, one of my own favorites. They are lines which can serve as a daily reminder to stay attentive to the Uncreated Light who sustains all:

Cherish the dark’s obscurity
Look for the diamonds in debris,
Thank God for all His mystery
And LIVE.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Easter Changes Everything

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

Alithos Anesti! Truly, He is Risen!

I have the distinctive pleasure of being paid to lead a class of students in reading the Great Books of the Western literary canon. I know, I know. It’s a dirty job, etc., etc. One text which I relish covering with the undergraduates is Dante’s Inferno and, while mediating upon what to share with you this Easter day, I was reminded of a particular scene from that work, the greatest of Christian poems.

Early in the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim and his guide, the Latin poet Virgil, arrive at the latter’s “permanent address,” Limbo. Limbo is described as the eternal residence of those

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets Gustave Doré (1832-83)

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets (Gustave Doré, 1832-83)

souls who, while on earth, did not sin but lacked baptism, “the door to the faith” (Inf. 4.36). While he is there, Dante spies the souls of many famous men and women from classical history and myth, such as Electra, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The existence of these non-baptized noble souls is not one of judgment, let alone torture. They live amid a cool and verdant meadow, high and bathed in light, resembling the enclosure to an open courtyard. While to the eye this place is one of beauty, to the ear it is far less so. What one hears upon entering this lush and pleasant pasture are sighs “of sorrow without torments” (Inf. 4.28). Though the pilgrim finds himself amid a collection of the greatest poets from classical antiquity, i.e., Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his own guide Virgil, there is no singing in Limbo, no music. The souls in Limbo have lost something for which the scenery cannot compensate: hope.

What Dante the poet is trying to bring to life for us is an entirely and completely natural world, a world of nature without grace. As St. Thomas reminds us, the perfection of our natural desires cannot be fulfilled by natural ends alone. The human person is directed to an end which is beyond his/her capacity to achieve without assistance. Since eternal life with God is the end to which we are called and for which we were made, it is God who must do the assisting. Without God’s help, the best that human nature, and the entire created world, can offer is still not enough to satisfy our deepest desires and longings. To quote another famous theologian saint: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (August. Conf. 1.1). The scene which Dante has brought to life for us, therefore, is one which depicts the world without grace. At best, creation can be quite attractive and even beautiful. But without the gift of grace, the most stunning botanical courtyard can seem like a prison.

While in Limbo, Dante the pilgrim asks Virgil if any of the souls residing there have ever left it for eternal beatitude. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) states that he was newly arrived when he witnessed the coming of the LORD “with the sign of the victory crown” (Inf. 4.54). That to which Virgil is alluding is the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell. The Latin poet states that after Good Friday, Christ “made blessed” (Inf. 4.62) the souls of the OT patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings. Unlike the Gentile non-baptized residents of Limbo, these souls were the recipients of God’s covenant and, while on earth, lived in the hope that God would fulfill his promises to Israel. Just as the permanent residents of Limbo lived without hope on earth and thus continue to do so in the afterlife, so too the transient residents of Limbo lived in hope on earth and continued to do so in the afterlife. The event which fulfilled their hope, and brought about the attainment of their deepest desires, was the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ inaugurates a new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first-fruit” (1 Cor 15:20, 23), a sign of the things to come which have begun in him. In being joined to Christ, we too become new creations or, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, after baptism “you are properly called Christs” (Catechetical Lectures 21.1). In being united to Christ, we become by adoption what he is by nature; i.e., sons and daughters of the Father.

Chora

The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (Istanbul, Turkey)

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the artistic representation of the mystery Christ’s resurrection is not a glorified Christ standing next to an empty tomb. Rather, the Resurrection (Anastasis) Icon depicts the Harrowing of Hell. In this image, the glorified Christ is seen clutching the hands of Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity. At Jesus’ feet are the “doors of Hell,” which he has burst open, and those objects scattered on the ground are shrapnel from the metalwork of the doors. One might interpret them as those tiny but infinitely-numbered little things we do every day which keep Jesus out of our lives. In addition, at Jesus’ feet also lays what looks like a corpse. This, of course, is death itself, which Christ has conquered and destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15). The figures in the background on either side of Christ are the souls of those whom he has come to redeem. On the left, St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) is closest to Jesus, and behind him are those OT kings who predicted the coming of the Savior: David (in the Psalms) and Solomon (in the Book of Wisdom). On right side are those patriarchs and prophets who lived in hope of God’s redemption, but predicted or prefigured Christ’s coming more obliquely: Abel, Moses, etc.

What these poetic and artistic representations, as well as the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell itself, should help us to recall is both our need for God’s grace and God’s most abounding love in providing it to us. It was not cheap. The price was the life of His only-begotten Son. But for those united to Christ by the grace which he has won for us, everything is changed. By grace, our human nature has been raised from sin and death. By grace, we can affirm, with Fr. Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” By grace, we have become adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. The Paschal Triduum is not just the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the story of our salvation. In short, Easter changes everything.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.