What comes before the resurrection of Jesus Christ? One answer: Christ’s crucifixion. Another answer: Hebrew scripture. Lately I have been thinking about the relation between those two answers, prompted in part by discussion in a theology book group at my home church, the Presbyterian—New England Congregational Church of Saratoga Springs. We have been reading a book by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision.
Although I’m skeptical about Crossan’s thesis—announced in the subtitle—I am fascinated by the material that he and his wife (who supplies the photographs) present in the course of the argument. In particular, I keep coming back to two chapters focused on a set of illuminated psalters produced in Constantinople in the late 840s. The illuminations depict New Testament scenes, including the crucifixion and resurrection, but the texts are the Hebrew psalms (hence the name “psalter”). What connection did ninth century Byzantine monks see between Christ’s crucifixion and Hebrew scripture? What meaning might that connection have for us today? Answering these questions will require a wonky digression, but we’ll get back on solid ground very soon, I promise!
“Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed”
The psalters present the texts of the psalms in Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire and still one of the principal languages of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Illuminations depicting the resurrection – anastasis, in Greek—often accompany psalms in which some form of the root word anastemi—“rise up”—appears. For instance, a resurrection scene accompanies Psalm 10:12: “Rise up [anastethi], O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed” (NRSV).
David is calling upon the Lord to rise up
Evidently, the monk who placed this text together with a picture of the resurrection viewed the resurrection as a response to the text. The psalmist, whom the monk would identify with David, is calling upon the Lord to rise up, and he does, in the person of Jesus at the resurrection. Another way to put this is to say that in the psalm David is prophesying the resurrection of Jesus. Accordingly, David frequently appears as a prophet in the resurrection scenes in the Byzantine psalters. In fact, in at least one scene, we don’t see Jesus at all; we see only David, standing at Jesus’s empty tomb, witnessing the fulfillment of his prophecy which the Roman guards, who are shown sleeping, fail to witness. (Click here to view this image)
Of course, the idea that Hebrew scripture contains prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ is hardly new, and tradition recognizes many examples more famous than the passages from the psalms that are illuminated in the Byzantine psalters. But I have found that approaching the Easter story through these psalms opens up the meaning not only of the resurrection, but also the crucifixion, in ways that seem especially challenging for our time.
Christ’s crucifixion can been seen as something he does for AND with the people
In Psalm 10:12, the resurrection of the Lord—“Rise up, O Lord”—is a response to the crucifixion of the Lord’s people: “do not forget the oppressed.” If we open our eyes to the full prophetic scope of the psalm, we can see Christ’s crucifixion as not only something he does for the people—however we might understand his act as an act of sacrifice—but also something he does with the people. By suffering unjust oppression himself, he stands with all of those who are oppressed.
Easter sermons frequently, and quite rightly, invite listeners to look around in their daily lives for signs of resurrection. I believe the blessing of Easter includes the possibility of seeing the signs of crucifixion as well. There are people suffering from oppression all around us. Standing with the oppressed, Christ turns back on all of us the call of the psalmist: “do not forget.”
Do not forget
Depending on where we stand when we hear that call, we may identify the oppressed in many different ways. At the present time, I seem to have been called – it was certainly not a deliberate decision on my part—to respond to the oppression of immigrants, the stranger in our midst whom Hebrew scripture, once again, repeatedly tells us to welcome with gracious hospitality.
Oppression is often the root cause that drives people to migrate from their original homes. To take one example: the violence inflicted on women in Central America, graphically reported in a recent feature story in the Sunday New York Times*, involves acts of mutilation, strangling and flaying that recall crucifixion in a way that is painfully deeper than symbolism. When women flee such violence to seek asylum in the United States, often in the company of their families, they do so in the hope of resurrection.
Our faith calls us to join them in that hope, to seek ways of welcoming the stranger, as members of Albany Presbytery are doing through our Immigration Network. While we join with individuals in resurrection hope, we also bear witness to the powers that oppress them, as Jesus bore witness in the crucifixion. Psalm 10, which calls upon the Lord to “rise up,” concludes with these prophetic words:
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
*Sonia Nazario, “Someone is always trying to kill you,” New York Times, April 7, Review section: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/05/opinion/honduras-women-murders.html