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
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.
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.