By Sr. Constance Johanna, SSJD.
Readings: Job 14.1-14; Psalm 31.1–4, 15–16; 1 Peter 4.1–8; Matthew 25.57-66
What happened during those hours from Friday afternoon till early Sunday morning, when Jesus was in the tomb? What we know from the Bible is that John took Jesus’ mother Mary to his home, and perhaps that is where the other disciples and friends of Jesus gathered as they mourned his death. And so in some Christian traditions the liturgical focus is on mourning.
We don’t know from the Bible what was happening with Jesus during that time, and there have been many speculations about this throughout the centuries. One of them is that Jesus descended to hell – or more properly to Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – the place of the dead, not a place of the damned – that’s an idea that developed somewhat later in Christian theology. When Jesus descended to Sheol, the tradition is that he accompanied out of the grave those who were waiting for the resurrection to new life. There are some amazing paintings and icons of that event, especially from the Middle Ages.
I think of Holy Saturday, however, not as a day of mourning – because we know that our salvation was accomplished on that day and we also have the historical hindsight to anticipate the Resurrection. Perhaps a day of liberation of the dead is more in keeping with the coming Resurrection than the mourning is. But for me, the image of pregnancy captures the feel of the day – it is a liminal time, a threshold time pregnant with new life. Even our secular culture picks up on that theme with all the bunnies and chicks and eggs – all images of fertility and creation. And so when I first discovered the painting on the cover of your leaflet I thought of the role Mary might have played in Jesus bringing forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life to the dead.
To appreciate the painting in this context we have to engage what the poet Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” In our rational, linear thinking that is so valued in our culture we can overlook the concept of chronos and kairos time. Chronos time is clock time, where kairos time is God’s time – the dimension of eternity where time is not measured in hours or years or millenia. It is a state where God breaks through our linear experience of life into the new time that we call eternity. In eternal reality, we are not locked into the limitations of our clocks and calendars. Rather we are one with God in this moment, and with all who have gone before us and will come after us.
And so the improbable concept of a pregnant Mary meeting Eve at the moment she has taken a bite out of the apple is suddenly turned into an illumination of the reality of God’s healing and salvation through Christ.
Look carefully at the painting, which was done by Sr. Grace Remington at the Cistercian Abbey of the Mississippi in Dubuque, Iowa. The background is once again yellow, this time a yellowish-orange, as are the pears in the arbor surrounding the two women. Mary is pregnant with Jesus (remember this is kairos time) and is wearing a white robe – a symbol of purity – with a blue veil – the colour associated with Mary from Byzantine icons, in a culture where blue was the colour of royalty and special honour. She contrasts with Eve, whose colours are earth tones, and who is dressed in her own hair, which curls up on the ends to present a different kind of feminine image from Mary. In fact, long hair in the first century was associated with the opposite of modesty and purity.
A snake is ominously winding its way up her leg, and Mary – as she is shown in so many statues and paintings – is stepping on the snake’s head – death to the snake, death to evil, death to death – that is the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The differences between the two women are reflected in their body language – Eve looks ashamed, with the pink cheeks we associate with embarrassment, holding the apple that she has just taken a bite out of, and looking while Mary’s gaze and smile are fixed lovingly and tenderly on Eve. Mary is visibly pregnant, and is holding Eve’s hand on her belly – not unlike two intimate friends, one saying to the other – feel here – you can feel him kicking! But in this case it is not only the joy of new life that Eve is touching – it is the body of Christ in Mary’s body forgiving Eve, reconciling her to the cosmos which has been affected by her sin and Adam’s. Mary is the new Eve who is the ark of the new covenant.
Theology aside, I love this painting for its tender intimacy and potential friendship between two women. And that intimacy and friendship are what Jesus offers to all of us. You’ll remember that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden – the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The women are standing in the arbor of a pear tree – perhaps representing the tree of life, as they are preparing to walk through into new life, into resurrection – just as Jesus is waiting in the womb of the earth on this Holy Saturday to complete the restoration of the whole creation. It recalls the words of St. Paul in his letter the Romans (8.18-19, 22-25):
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Be patient. The labour is almost finished. We await the resurrection.