Seeing and Not Seeing
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 10, 2005
Scripture: Acts 2: 14, 36-41; Luke 24:3-35
“And they revealed the things that had taken place on the journey and how he had become known to them in the breaking of the bread.”–Luke 24:35
Last time we saw how Mary Magdalene could see and not recognize the risen Jesus (John 20:11-18). She thought he was the gardener. I said that that element in the text was meant among other things to underline the fact that wishful thinking was not part of the mystery of the Resurrection. She did not take the gardener for Jesus, as she might have had she been driven by wishful thinking, but rather the other way around, she took Jesus for the gardener. She was so securely bound by ordinary realism, namely that the dead do not return, that she missed the extraordinary reality before her very eyes. Seeing was for her not believing but rather misapprehension. She could not believe her eyes.
We have the same phenomenon in today’s story, drawn out into an excruciating embarrassment when the two travelers upbraid the mysterious stranger for being ignorant of the events of the crucifixion. What kind of a joke is this? It is in any case a burning irony, as the hearts of the two attest, and as we readers feel. Our situation is like the audience of a movie wanting to cry out in warning as a character walks unknowingly nearer and nearer to danger, or persists in making a bigger and bigger fool of himself.
I think the same point is being made against the accusation of wishful thinking, but just as in the account of the appearance of Jesus to Mary, there is more going on in this story. If we dare to conjecture about the historical nature of these trans-historical events we might say that there was in fact something about the resurrected Jesus that rendered him immediately unrecognizable to his closest friends. (These two Emmaus walkers were members of the inner group as we see from their being admitted upon return to Jerusalem to the place where the disciples were hiding).
It is important to record that the Risen Jesus was so transformed as to be immediately unrecognized by close friends, if only to correct the careless talk of some scholars that the resurrection reports feature a resuscitated corpse. The argument goes, “A resuscitated corpse is of no interest to us, being merely a time bound wonder. More to the point is the general (mythical) message of the perpetual triumph of life over death, as in the pagan rites of spring and the bromides of American optimism.” The feature of unrecognisability deprives such views of scriptural foundation; the scripture teaches that Jesus returned from the dead transformed, in the substance of the new and eternal creation, not as a resuscitated corpse like Lazarus. A resuscitated corpse would die again, like Lazarus, and Jairus’s daughter, and the widow’s son at Nain; but this Jesus comes in the power of an indefeasible immortality, not just to defy death but to defeat it.
This is the truth that we may see and not see, until, as in Mary’s case he speaks to us, or as in this Emmaus case he eats with us. These two pericopes present therefore the two great means of grace, Word and Sacrament, attending to the preaching and in response reaching out for Christ himself in the bread and the wine. Both of these means of grace are in fact there in the Emmaus story alone: he opens to them the meaning of the scriptures, that is he teaches them how to read the Old Testament in a new way, namely, as referring to him, and he is known to them in the breaking of the bread.
There are many lessons to be learned from this Emmaus text, but the one I want us to take to heart today is the one concerning seeing and not seeing. There is a background to this theme in the famous vision of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where in the course of the prophet’s vision of God, the Lord says to the prophet, “Go and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see but do not perceive’ (Isaiah 6:9).” The Jesus of the gospel of Mark takes up the theme as follows: In answer to the question about the meaning of the parable of the sower he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand…” It would seem that there is a way of seeing that looks and really sees and a way that looks and misses the point entirely.
One could present this situation as the distinction between surface and depth, the problem of the “profoundly superficial” person who loves the surface and is blind to anything beneath it. It is fashionable these days to celebrate the surface, because it is all we have left after we have given up believing in the soul and God, and the dependency of the former on the latter. Despite the outbursts of religiosity we are seeing currently the deep tides of our culture are materialist and more people believe in chance than in providence. The distinction between the surface and the depth is, therefore, really the loss of the dimension of depth altogether, the loss of God and the soul by a decision for matter alone. Therefore the general superficiality of the Emmaus walkers is a sign of a wrong decision about the nature of reality. The details of their attitude tell us more about this sad mistake.
Like Mary in the garden they cannot include the possibility of the Resurrection in their interpretative frame. Such a thing cannot happen and therefore the phenomena that attest it must be explained in other terms. “I am addressing the gardener,” or “This stranger must be the most ignorant person in Jerusalem.” The weight of the ordinary holds them down in despair and prevents them from seeing the extra-ordinary. Paul the Apostle regards this kind of blindness as the work of the “god of this world” who blinds the spiritual sight “…to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).” Who’s to say that the despairing embeddedness in the ordinary, which so many of us settle for and so turn the wine of resurrection into the water of false truisms (e.g. Life naturally always triumphs over death), whose to say that this despair is not the work of some evil presence aptly called the “god of this world?” We know that there certainly is a dominant power in this world, and that that power is the power of death. The despair of the Emmaus walkers, and of Mary in the garden is a good example of the power of the god of this world to blind us to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, precisely to the triumph of life over death through Jesus Christ.
The Emmaus disciples reported to the Jerusalem disciples that they had seen the Lord alive, had learned from him how to interpret the OT properly, that is through the lens of the Paschal mystery, and had seen him in the breaking of the bread. The verb Luke uses for the act of reportage is the same word as John uses when he says, “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the father has made him known.” This word therefore is the word to describe revelation, to describe the action by which God makes his hidden self, known. Luke can use the word too for the account of how two despairing disciples learned to read the Bible correctly and then saw through the veil of their despair to the living Lord.
They saw him when he broke bread and shared it with them, that is, in the action of the Eucharist. So shall we see him. As you come to take the bread and wine, open your eyes and you shall see him here, the host of this party, giving us the medicine of immortality, the bread of the angels that nourishes our true and inner selves for eternity. That seeing is, of course a miracle, the essential miracle, the miracle of the Resurrection. It’s possibility is everything to us. Come Lord Jesus!