The tension of the Christian life is not just caused by a living at the threshold between an earthly and heavenly realm. Within earthly existence itself, Christian discipleship will always be a life of standing at a threshold, straddling between the death of the old self, and the new and transformed life in a resurrected and glorified Christ.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for “threshold”. Liminality denotes a time of seeming ambiguity during a period of transition from one situation to another. The word has gained a degree of importance in a number of disciplines. In anthropology, for instance, the French folklorist Arnold van Gennep used the term to speak of a time slice during particular cultural rituals when one’s identity, communal belonging or direction and purpose in life become somewhat suspended, even though the purpose of the ritual is to facilitate a radical transformation from one state to another.
This notion of ambiguity as a seriously-engaged cultural reality is important to consider, since it is reflected quite powerfully in various works of Christian art. One of the most striking is The Man of Sorrows by Lorenzo Monaco (1405). The image is one of the post-crucified Christ. His hands and side evince the holes of the nails and lance. The skin is of a colour that is far from vibrant. His head is sagging and there is even the slightest evidence of a broken neck. The Jesus depicted in this image is quite dead. The man of sorrows depicted here is “sorrowful even unto death” (Matt 26:38). In gazing at the dead Christ, however, one small detail may escape the viewer that would qualify the deathly status of this Christ. For while the signs of death are quite apparent, Monaco’s Christ is also standing. This means that the folding of Christ’s arms over his body are due to the locomotive power of Christ’s living body. The Christ depicted in this image then, is not one of conclusive, all-encompassing death, but one that is at the liminal stage as Christ processes from death to life. This is why Monaco’s image of the Man of Sorrows is sometimes referred to as The Resurrection.
Christians can gain much from a reflection on Christ’s liminality. This is especially so for those Christians who, now in the 3rd week of Eastertide, feel anything but the fullness of a visceral experience of sharing in Christ’s resurrection. When the sharing of the resurrection seems so far away even during the Feast of the Resurrection of the Lord, there may be the temptation to conclude that either the resurrection will never be a personal reality, or that God is resurrecting oneself only to a degree, only to prepare him or her for the next round of personal crucifixion.
Whilst much of the Christian’s life may feel like a perpetual state of liminality, Monaco’s painting reminds us powerfully of Paul’s assurance to the Christians of Rome. The experience of ambiguity is not permanent. It is but a phase and a prelude to a process of restoring all aspects of our life, even our bodily and material existence (Rom 8:11). The cry for help to the Lord by Isaiah “restore me to health and make me live”, is not a futile request that disappears in to a spiritual echo-chamber. Christ’s resurrection assures us that, building up below our immediate experience of continued anguish or ambiguity, is a wave of life that will one day flood one’s valley of the shadow of death, restoring all aspects of life that for now seem at best dormant, and even glorifying those aspects, and in so doing have them share in Christ’s glorification manifested in his Ascension. In the meantime, part of our discipleship consists in living in this state of liminality, and waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise of hearing our prayers and responding to them, trusting that our ability to endure this state of liminality and not giving into despair is in and of itself the beginning of God’s intervention.