Monday, May 9, 2011

Caught in a Stare at More than Meets the Eye

Luke 24:13-35

That very day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Sermon

The Chapel sits at the far end of the court yard of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. Smaller than our worship space here, it was an intimate place for our group to gather in prayer each morning of the study program I attended two years ago. Built in 1690 of stone and ornate, dark carved wood, it is as traditional as traditional gets. Hanging above the altar is a painting, The Supper at Emmaus by Ceri Richards. Colorful and contemporary, it is the polar opposite of the space it graces. The setting and art work well together, complementing and augmenting what the other lacks.

Richards’ painting portrays the biblical story we heard read moments ago. Jesus is at table with two disciples. Only a few hours after the resurrection, when news of the event is still garbled and its meaning is still allusive, Jesus has spent the day walking with His followers, explaining how his death and resurrection is to be understood through the lens of the Hebrew scriptures. He holds them in rapt attention, but for reasons we don’t understand they do not recognize who he is. Jesus remains for them a stranger; one who is with them but they do not know, until at supper he blesses and breaks the bread. Through this Eucharistic moment their eyes are opened, they see Jesus for who he is, and then he disappears from the room.

The obvious features of Richards’ painting are its use of color and his characteristic exaggeration of the hands and feet. Jesus is sitting at table. We can see his face. One disciple’s back is to us. We can not see his face, which must register complete astonishment, because, having recognized Jesus, he appears to be falling off his chair. The other disciple sees none of this yet, because – interestingly – he is saying grace. Hands folded, eyes closed in prayer, he does not see the incredible epiphany before him. Jesus himself is framed in a yellow cross, a part of which serves as the painting’s table. Bread and wine and Christ are all part of the cross. Richards has captured that moment after recognition and before disappearance when Jesus is beginning to fade from view.

While the painting conveys many meanings, hanging above the altar in St. Edmund Hall Chapel, it clearly invites each worshipper to look for Christ in the Eucharistic meal and moment. It challenges us to consider how we might be blinded to Christ by our own prayers and religious devotion.

I came upon Denise Levertov’s poem while reading one day, but had never seen Valasquez’ painting. One incredible benefit of the internet age is how things we have never seen or read are only a lightning quick google search away. Levertov does a wonderful job of depicting the painting by giving words to the thoughts of Valasquez’ servant girl. Perhaps difficult to see in your reproduction, she is a kitchen preparing a meal. Over her right shoulder, in the top left hand corner of the painting, we see two figures sitting at table. Is it Jesus and one of the followers or is it the two followers, with Jesus obscured from our view, but not hers? I’ll let you decide. Interestingly, this part of the painting was hidden for years. No one knew it was there until restoration work brought it out. Until then, the painting was revered simply for showing a servant at work in a kitchen. Now we see that it depicts a moment when Jesus’ followers have not yet recognized him, but the servant girl, catching a reflection on the jug, perceives him to be the Risen Christ in their midst.

Although the servant girl is a fictional character not a part of the gospel story, Valasquez challenges us through her. She is a woman. She is black. She is an uneducated maid or perhaps even a slave. She could not possibly be lower of the social ladder. And yet she is the first to recognize Jesus. And she does so in the midst of the most mundane of daily activities, while tending to the chore of serving the meal.

The Servant Girl at Emmaus asks us to ponder how each person, and especially those to whom we are most dismissive, might help us to know and to see Christ. It asks us to ponder how Christ is unknowingly present in a the daily routine.

I spent some time this week pondering those moments when I sensed Jesus was with me – not in some intellectual, theological, doctrinal sense, but really with me… when I was completely aware that I was not alone, that I knew the Holy One was in our midst. I have had such moments in my life, but they are rare. I have not had a moment like that for a while. To what degree, I wonder, do these epiphanies come only as a gift from God and to what degree are they always here if only we had eyes to see?

At baptism we promise with God’s help “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Does this mean that Christ is here in the person sitting next to you in the pew? Is Christ to be found this afternoon at the grocery store in the tired and overworked cashier, in the oblivious shopper whose cart is in your way, and in the mother whose child is running wild, screaming up and down the aisles? Does it mean that Christ will be sitting at your dinner table tonight, and at the table across from you tomorrow at McDonald’s, and at a table in the parish hall at our Thanksgiving Community Dinner? Does it mean Christ can be found in your coworkers and neighbors and social acquaintances? Yes, this is exactly what it means. But it is not something we see plainly, it is something we must seek.

Many mornings I begin my day with the Prayer of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ as a light, illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield overshadow me.
Christ under me. Christ over me.
Christ beside me on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
Be in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.

And when I offer this prayer, I know that the challenge is not will Christ do this, but will I perceive it. Christ in the person on my left and my right. Christ in the heart of each person I talk to and in the words of each person who speaks to me. I know that my day would go differently if I could truly see this and I know that my attitude and demeanor toward others would be different if I believed it. I am still a work in progress, more often like the Richards’ praying disciple than Valasquez’ servant girl.

I know that I am not alone in this. I know that there are many who are just like me, wanting to see Christ as a real presence on my left and my right, but somehow not quite putting it into practice. We long for those moments described in another poem about today’s gospel called The Day by Harold McCurdy, when “caught in a stare at more than meets the eye they starring lost the seen man in the unsearchable Divine.” I pray that this morning, this Eucharist moment might be a time when bread is blessed and broken, and we, caught in a stare at more than meets the eye, might recognize Christ above, below, within, without, on our left and our right, in the face of those to whom we speak, and in the words of those who speak to us.

The Servant Girl At Emmaus by Denise Levertov

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his—the one
who had looked at her,
once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread
from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid
on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man
they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man
whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?
Those who had brought this stranger home

to their table
don’t recognize yet with thom they sit.
But she in the kitchen,
absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.