"If Christ did not rise for us, then he did not rise at all, since he had no need of it just for himself. In him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”

Saint Ambrose of Milan, On the Death of His Brother Satyrus 2.102 (379)



Resurrecting Easter is a debate about ideas and images or, better, a debate about ideas presented in and by images. It is a tour through thought and theology, an expedition across geographical space and historical time, and, finally, a passage from religious tradition to human evolution. It concerns a struggle between two visions of Christ’s Resurrection, studies a conflict between two images of Easter’s icon, and asks what is here at stake both inside and outside Christianity? Watch how the problem unfolds.

The major events in Christ’s life or the major feasts in the Church’s liturgy—from Annunciation to Ascension—are described in Gospel stories and can thence be depicted in any medium. Biblical artists illustrate visually and creatively what they read verbally and traditionally. That is why, despite brilliance in artistic imagination and genius in technical invention, those images remain easily recognizable across the centuries by those who know either Gospel Story or Art History.

We just said “Annunciation to Ascension” but there is one exception in that overall sequence, one event in the Christ-Life series that is never described in any Gospel story. Furthermore, this is not some minor happening but the most important and climactic one of them all. This is the moment, instant, vision of Christ’s Resurrection as it is actually. happening. This—unlike all other Gospel events—is never described in itself. But, if never described in text how can it be ever depicted in image?

Maybe, you say, Resurrection is simply too mysterious, too far above human comprehension for any possible description? But there are many other mysterious events in Christ’s life—the Transfiguration, for instance—and they all get quite adequate descriptions. Is Resurrection any more mysterious than Ascension—and it is described twice in Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:9-11. So, to repeat, why omit any description of the Resurrection and, then, how do you depict anywhere what is described nowhere?

A distinction is crucial here, between direct or indirect portrayals of an event. You can either describe and depict an event, incident, happening, episode, directly in itself—for example, the Crucifixion in all its explicit details.Or you can describe or depict it only indirectly in its effects, results, consequence, outcomes—for example, the Pieta, with the executed Christ on Mary’s lap. The choice is always there: directly describe and depict the cause; or, indirectly describe and depict the effect(s).

For Christ’s Resurrection, there are so many indirect descriptions that their sheer exuberance masks—deliberately or not—the absolute absence of any direct report of the Event in itself as it actually happens. The description of so many consequences distracts you from the absence of any of the cause itself. These multiplied after-effects fall into two major trajectories of post-resurrection Gospel stories.

One is the Empty Tomb Tradition, with either female or male disciples discovering the tomb vacant on Easter Sunday morning. This involves one (John 20:1-2), two (Matthew 28:1), three (Mark 16:1), or more women (Luke 24:10). It can also involve males—in some competition with one another (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-10).

Another is the Risen Vision Tradition, with either female or male disciples. seeing the Risen Christ. This can involve one woman (John 20:11-18), two women (Matthew 28:9-10), or a married couple (Luke 24:13-32). Locations can be in Jerusalem, in a room (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-29) or on a hill (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:12). They can also happen in Galilee, on a moun­tain (Matthew 28:16-20) or by the lake (John 21:14).

These two Traditions are—and ever remain—powerful but indirect solutions to the Gospel’s lack of any direct Resurrection story. Still, the question, presses. From Nativity through Crucifixion we have Life-of-Christ events presented directly as they happened. How can the Resurrection, the most important event of them all, be the only one lacking a direct presentation? It is comparatively inconsistent and thus clearly unacceptable that Easter alone be depicted indirectly even if profusely so.

It is not surprising, therefore, and probably inevitable, that Christian imagination eventually creates a direct image for Christ’s Resurrection—just like all those other Christ-Life events. But it is certainly surprising that it creates two images, two different images, two stunningly divergent images. No such duality, and certainly no such competing duality, ever happens for any other event in the Christ-Life series or any other icon in the Great-Feasts sequence.

The first direct Resurrection-image is created by the year 400. We term it the Individual Resurrection Tradition because it focuses on Christ Alone. It imagines Christ rising in splendid, triumphant, and transcendent majesty but also in splendid, triumphant, and transcendent isolation.

This first Easter image is, from its very beginning, connected with but not just derived from the Story of the Guarded Tomb found only in Matthew’s account of the Gospel (27:62-66; 28:2-4,11-15). How, why, and where this happens is a first major theme in Resurrecting Easter.

The second direct Resurrection-image is created by the year 700. We term it the Universal Resurrection Tradition because, instead of arising alone, Christ raises all of humanity with him. He reaches out towards Adam and Eve, the biblical parents and symbols for humanity itself, raises them up and leads them out of Hades, the prison-house of Death.
This second Easter image is, from its very beginning, connected with but not just derived from the Story of the Emptied Tombs found only in Matthew’s account of the Gospel (27:51b-54). How, why, and where this happens is a second major theme in Resurrecting Easter.

Think for a moment about those two different images and about the divergent theological visions behind them. Reread what Ambrose, the sainted Archbishop of Milan, wrote in the epigraph to this chapter: “in him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose.” He wrote it about the same time as the image of Individual Resurrection Tradition appeared and yet it seems a far better description of the Universal Resurrection Tradition’ icon.

What happens between those twin traditions across the millennia of Christianity? Will one, the other, or some combination of both ever become the single, official, and traditional Easter icon? If both remain, how will that dualism endure within the same religion? All of that is a third major theme in Resurrecting Easter.