Easter Sunday of the Resurrection
Dominican House of Studies
27 March 2016
Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
Brothers and sisters in Christ. A notable contrast can be observed between Eastern and Western iconography of the Resurrection. In Western art, Christ is typically depicted in the very act of rising from the tomb, surrounded by prone soldiers who are either asleep, or amazed at what they are witnessing. In Eastern iconography, however, what is depicted is not the Resurrection as such, but Christ at the moment when He breaks open with his Cross the gates of hell and reaches out to Adam and Eve, with St. John the Baptist—His precursor even here—standing to the side. The scene is perfectly described in a passage from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday (LH Readings, Holy Saturday): “Truly [Christ] goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; He wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains—He who is God and Adam’s son. The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, His cross.”
Fitting, is it not, that the very first beneficiaries of Christ’s triumph over sin and death should be Adam and Eve? For did we not sing last night at the Easter Vigil that it was the “happy fault” of Adam that brought us “so great a Redeemer”(Exsultet)? Undeterred by Adam’s disobedience, God refused to let the human race wreck His plan to share His life with us. He sent His only Son to reconcile Adam and Eve, and all of us, to Him so that we could again share in this marvelous gift of His grace.
The supreme delicacy of divine providence, so neatly captured in Eastern iconography—that Adam and Eve, who lost this gift, should be the first to have it restored to them—provides a profound insight both into the nature of their fault and into that of the divine remedy.
In his analysis of the nature of another fault—that of the fallen angels—St. Thomas Aquinas asks what sort of sin that could have been (cf. Summa theol. 1a.63,1-3). Eliminating those capital sins which can be committed only by bodily persons, he is left with the spiritual sin of pride: it is traditionally said that the sin of the fallen angels was that they wanted to be like God. But what is wrong with wanting to be like God, Aquinas asks; this seems to be an altogether admirable thing to desire. Their sin lay, he concludes, in their wanting to possess this likeness to God, not as his gift, but as their due.
The parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matthew 21:33-44) dramatizes just this sort of sin—by no means restricted to the angelic realm. The parable recounts the story of a landlord who sends servants to his vineyard to collect from the tenants his share of the harvest. The tenants treat the servants badly—beating, stoning and even killing them. In the end, the landlord sends his son, thinking that the tenants will respect him. But when the tenants see the son, they say to themselves, “This is the heir; come let us kill him and get the inheritance.” The situation here is one in which tenants could realistically expect to inherit the property of an absentee landlord upon the death of the last heir. Seeing the son, the tenants in this parable presume (wrongly) that the landowner is dead, and they kill the son and heir in order to get the vineyard for themselves—thus taking by violence what would eventually have been theirs as an inheritance, or, more to the point, as a kind of gift.
Here we are close to the nature of sin—not only that of the fallen angels, but also that of Adam and Eve as it is recounted in the book of Genesis. Indeed, it is precisely the Devil, in the form of the serpent, who suggests to Adam and Eve the very sin that caused his own downfall. Encouraging them to eat from the only tree in the garden which God has forbidden to them, he concludes enticingly: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
This primordial sin of wanting to take from God what could only be given as a gift is tantamount to a rejection of the gift as such, the gift that would be nothing less than a share in His own divine life. Who can have the communion of life with God as his due? Only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No creaturely person—angelic or human—clearly. To become “like” God in this sense can only come as a gift.
Failing to grasp the gravity of the condition in which we find ourselves as the children of Adam and Eve, people may feel like they are caught in someone else’s dispute. The experience is not unfamiliar: we arrive for dinner at the home of a couple who have clearly been having a disagreement, and our arrival interrupts something that simmers beneath the surface throughout our visit, ready to be resumed upon our departure. How do we feel in such situations? We want to escape as soon as possible! But the human condition after Adam’s sin is not like this.
Christian revelation teaches us that this original sin on the part of our first parents had inescapable consequences for their descendents, and that God—accommodating our salvation to the nature of the fault, and thus to our human nature—mercifully willed to take the time needed to prepare us for the coming of our “great Redeemer.”
At the center of the whole history of divine love is Christ who by His perfect obedience to the Father overcomes the sin and death that result from the human unwillingness to receive from God what He would willingly bestow and now graciously restores in His Son. Gazing at the icon of the Resurrection, how can we fail to be touched by the sight of Christ reaching out to Adam and Eve in an unmistakable sign of restoration and reconciliation?
Already forgiven by God, they now know the nature of their sin and are happy to receive as a gift the redemption that Christ is so eager to bestow on them and on us.
On this Easter morning, we can understand that the words which the already-quoted ancient homily puts into the mouth of Christ are directed not only to Adam and Eve but also to us: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendents now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.” Driven from the land of paradise, we will be installed “no longer in paradise but on the throne of heaven….The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness, the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages” (LH Readings, Holy Saturday).