Evensong on Sunday 1 st April 2018 [Easter Day]
St Margaret’s Church, Binsey
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 66:1-11; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 24:13-35
And it came to pass, as he sat eating with them. He took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. [Luke 24: 30-31]
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the great exhibition celebrating King Charles I as a collector currently at the Royal Academy, one of the most striking works is a large canvas by Titian painted in 1524 depicting the supper at Emmaus, and this very moment of recognition. Our Lord sits centrally at a table covered in a white cloth, in an open loggia beyond which can be seen a romantic, rugged scene. the world of nature is not forgotten and indeed below the table a small dog confronts a cat. On the table there is bread and wine and two servants, one bringing more food are there to serve Jesus, Cleopas and the other disciple. The scene is very much less crowded than it is in Leonardo’s famous Last Supper but somehow just as vibrant, just as full of tension. As Jesus blesses one disciple looks on as though still wrapped in a pious sadness; the other leans back in a startled moment of recognition. Titian imagines for us the drama, the theological significance of a moment which changes everything, not just for them but also for us. I wonder what the Royal Martyr made of it or whether this great painting came to mind on the morning of his execution?
Why had not Cleopas and his companion recognised the stranger as Jesus at once? There are a few rational (if not totally convincing) explanations. Jesus had been put to death and so the pair did not expect to meet him despite the rumours circulating in their circle, rumours which had started amongst a group of women. Secondly, they were too bound down with grief to recognise their companion (and in St John’s gospel Mary Magdalene who knew Jesus better thought he was simply a gardener until he spoke to her by name. Thirdly this was not the way that they thought that the advent of the Messiah and the Messianic age would end.
The stranger who seemed not to know what had happened but was well up in scripture reminded them of the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah. He seemed sympathetic, and a good companion to share their lodging with as it was clearly getting dark. Then at the meal he took charge, and it had clearly seemed appropriate for this learned teacher to bless the wine and the unleavened bread (matzos) – Here Titian and other painters get it wrong for it was still very much within the Pesach season. This blessing -which we see at the Last Supper- was so characteristic of Jesus, his intonation, his warmth, his phraseology, that there could be no mistake. But then he vanished from their sight!
Like other accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances the events on the Emmaeus road leave us in a quandary. Were they made up? Clearly, they do not accord with our modern and not so modern understanding of the world. There seem to have been rather a lot of ancient witnesses, some of whom especially Thomas needed convincing? If he did appear, was he some sort of emanation, a ghost? That raises even more problems unless one is a devotee of the paranormal. Engaging in conversation and eating are not normal in the case of other supposed ghosts!
A are left with two possibilities, both of which can co-exist within the parameters of faith, and both could even be true. The first is that these events happened as stated and we have in that case be resigned to them happening within the Grace of God to creation. They lie outside the boundaries of science not because they are untrue but because they cannot be repeated or verified.
The second possibility is broadly philosophical and psychological. Jesus had both exemplified and taught the way that the Holy Wisdom, the Spirit of the Divine operates in Creation. St John’s Gospel indeed equates Jesus with the Logos , a Greek concept for the controlling rationality of the universe. An Indian might have seen all of these concepts and eventually Jesus himself as avatars of the Divine. Jesus certainly taught that the way we relate to other people and treat other people is precisely the way we actually treat God (and if he view him as part of the Divine mystery) the way we treat him. Formal prayers and practices such as animal sacrifice are of no account. By extension if we mistreat each other in acts of violence, if we mistreat other creatures in any way, if we trash the world we are driving nails into the cross. Perhaps Cleopas and his companion disciple, and the other disciples including Mary Magdalene came to see that \God lived in love and was Love. In contemplating his message they found Resurrection.
Some would see in this simply an aspect of neuro-psychology, the way the brain compensates for trauma, and finds a modicum of peace, embracing delusion as well as finding more acceptable explanations for grief. They would point to the mourning process which eventually ends with the subject being able to move on. I do not think it quite works here. The experience of the Early Church as recorded in their different ways by Luke in Acts and by Paul of Tarsus in his Epistles, suggest otherwise. Paul indeed, is certainly a subject for psychological enquiry, though in his case it stems from guilt at having been instrumental in the death of at least St Stephen who with others was totally convinced that Christ was still alive in the world. This morning I read John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily which is the climax of the Orthodox Easter Liturgy:
He has destroyed death by undergoing death,
He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.
Hell was filled with bitterness when it tasted his flesh…
Filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;
Filled with bitterness, for it was mocked;
Filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;
Filled with bitterness, for it was destroyed;
Filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.
It received a body and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. It received what it saw and was overpowered by what it did not see.
Christ is risen! He has risen indeed.