“That grabbed me!” This or some similar expression has been on our lips. A dramatic incident, a painting, a beautiful body, a wonder of nature, even a horrific accident, might have been the cause of such a declaration. The ecstasy may be momentary but we know, even if only for that moment, that we have been taken beyond the little confines of ourselves. We also know that this can happen at any time. Neither predictability nor inevitability has anything to do with this experience, which, as we often say, “comes out of the blue.”
This happened to me some years ago in the ancient cemetery of Athens. I was struck by the poignancy of a scene from classical funereal steles (upright stone monuments). The sculpture was quite simple: the deceased is sitting and saying farewell to a beloved spouse, son, or daughter. A final handshake is frozen in the stark loss of death. Indeed, in some museums in Athens you come upon fragments of these steles: just two hands in that final farewell. Those fragments alone stun me. I am caught up in the endless relay of mortality. The warmth of human touch reduced to stone. The handshake shrouds the devastation of abandonment.
But Greece has more to offer. In the eighth century ce a new ikonic tradition emerged. What was to be known as the Anastasis (the “Standing Up,” the “Resurrection”) appeared. In this ikon Jesus, in white robes, bearing the imprint of his wounds, has just broken through the prison of the Underworld. Behind him is the surrounding womb of the blue heavens (indicating second birth). To the left and right in the background the rocky walls have been pushed away, while under his feet lie the remains of the door to the Underworld, now shattered and forming a Greek chi (the letter Χ). Various elements of confinement, keys, and shackles are strewn on the ground, and Satan lies bound in the debris.
The focus, however, is upon the hands of Jesus, which reach out, grasping the wrists of Adam on his right and Eve on his left. Behind Adam stand the royals of Israel and John the Baptizer. Behind Eve stand Joseph and the prophets. Now it is that act of grasping which concentrates your gaze. Despite the static nature of the ikon, the scene is filled with an extraordinary energy that pulls you into the action. Light and motion have broken through the desperate and dark confinement. This is not some scheduled visit with a prisoner, not even a jailbreak. It is an utter devastation of the forces of despair and diminishment.
This scene has no biblical basis. First Peter 3:19 mentions that Jesus “preached to the imprisoned spirits.” But this ikon surpasses that remark. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended into the Underworld.” Yet there is nothing of the crashing presence of the “One who lives.” In fact, if one can find any traces at all it is with the Greeks, who told stories of journeys to the Underworld. Odysseus made a trip. (Of course, Virgil makes sure Aeneas makes one too, thereby holding up the Roman side.) Perhaps the most famous is that of Orpheus, who musically charmed his way into the realm of the dead to bring back his beloved Eurydice. But here the story ends in loss. Orpheus could not keep from looking back and his beloved was lost from his grasp. Their story adds another delicate lamentation to humanity’s mournful repertoire.
And then there is Plato’s cave. One man escapes a shackled and shadowy condition only to escape and see the light. The task of the philosopher is to bring this enlightenment back to his former cave dwellers. But even Plato would admit that this is a story. In fact, today we would call all of these artistic expressions “myths” and then go on to dismiss them.
But that would be a tragic mistake. For such mythic expressions are not attempts to keep us from the real. The mythic imagination was invoked when people found themselves in conditions beyond their control. Mythic language gave the ancients a way to take seriously the powers of destruction and dissolution, of creativity and surprise. Today we are still beset with the sense of powerlessness, of being shaken by events and forces outside our control. But we suffer from a poverty of imagination. We do not have an appreciation of mythic speech. Now without mythic language there is no adequate perception of power. We do not have words or images to address the depths and orientation of our existence.
I have displayed the images of the Greek funereal steles and the Anastasis to many groups. Each image captures the audience. They easily pick up this silent language. The power of these images goes beyond a blunt bottom line assessment and comes home again and again. There is something that continues to speak to us in that final farewell. And there is something unsettling and wonderfully wild in those hands holding on in the debris of the Underworld. It grabs you.
—Arthur J. Dewey, Xavier University
"What Grabs Us," Fourth R Issue 27-2