A couple of lifetimes ago I used Venn diagrams with my students to discuss set theory, and how a thing can belong to two or more groups. For example, there are the set of Americans, the set of men, and the set of movie stars, all of which include Clint Eastwood (“Make my day…”). Christianity uses an artistic symbol based on the same idea: the mandorla (Italian: “almond”), formed by two intersecting circles, signifying a person of extraordinary holiness. Of course, we are familiar with the halo, which glows around the head of the saints, and the nimbus, the 3-bar halo around the head of Christ signifying the Trinity. In certain paintings and icons, however, we behold the mandorla which envelopes the entire body of Jesus (and in certain cases the Blessed Mother). This beautiful shape has two features worth mentioning. If there is the set of “God” and the set of “Man,” then only one person belongs to both sets: Christ. (Mary also belongs to two sets: Virgin and Mother.) Likewise, Catholic spirituality involves various dualities: male and female, time and eternity, nature and grace, faith and reason, work and leisure, etc. The relationship between them is not adversarial but creative, for these pairings produce life, holiness, wisdom, virtue, etc. According to Cardinal Dulles: “Catholicism is characterized…by a both/and rather than an either/or approach.” Since God is the author of both creation and salvation, the Catholic seeks goodness, truth, and beauty everywhere, for these ultimately lead one to the Lord. The second aspect of the mandorla is paradoxical. If Jesus is, as he says, the “Light of the world,” one might expect that the edges of the mandorla would be somewhat dim, becoming progressively bright as one approaches the center, but the opposite is true. Just so, the deeper the soul delves into the reality of God, the “light” of earthly wisdom recedes, and the mystery of divine love, beyond any earthy experience, appears dark.
The Resurrection of Our Lord involves a number of beautiful paradoxes, among them “life in the midst of death.” The life of heaven, we believe, is ineffable, and so cannot it be captured in words; we can only point in the general direction. And so during the Easter Vigil the cantor chants the beautiful Exsultet with the line: “Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth: the divine to the human.” The fullest realization of human happiness is eternal union with the Father in Christ, the God/Man.
Today’s artwork, the Anastasis (Resurrection) Icon, employs many symbols beyond the mandorla. According to www.orthodoxroad.com, the scene depicts the event immediately preceding Easter morning: Christ’s descent into hell. The letters in Jesus’ nimbus (ὁ ὢν=“the One” [God’s name]) signifies his divinity; the figures on his right are Jesus’ ancestors David and Solomon, and his herald John the Baptist; the Old Testament figures of Abel, Moses, and a prophet are on his left; and having crashed through the gates of hell, Jesus literally pulls out from their coffins the two figures in the foreground, Adam and Eve. Below, Death lies captive.
In a time of international strife and domestic discord, we Catholics can show, by way of example, that there is no genuine conflict between divine grace and human freedom, or between individual well-being and love of neighbor. We must simply keep the eyes of our soul fixed firmly on Christ. A Blessed Easter to you all!