Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
30th Apr 2017
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
The Supper at Emmaus allows us to see the emergent Christian Faith and its relationship to past scripture, to the physical appearance of Christ. Jesus is disclosed as ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as he becomes known in the breaking of the bread. The Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a visionary painter, able to see into the heart of our humanity, as is the case in his Supper at Emmaus (1648), now in the Louvre in Paris. He is able to convey so much more than a beautiful surface, but portrays an iner world, also.He does this, for instance, in his numerous self-portraits, leading us into a rich interiority of the person, delineating the many facets of his humanity at various stages of his life, the truth about himself, his pride, his humiliation, his humor, his sufferings, his compassion, his aging, his wisdom, his greatness, and his littleness. This marvellous gift of disclosing his own inner life can be seen in a self-portrait at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath of Rembrandt just a year before his death. You can catch a 214 bus and go and see it for free!
So likewise the actor Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’ can convey a raft of emotion in one gesture, one look. The meeting of the stranger on the Road to Emmaus is akin to Mary’s meeting with the gardener who happens to be Jesus. She recognizes Jesus as he calls her by name, here Jesus is recognized in the breaking of bread, and reminds us that it is in this same breaking of bread in the Eucharist that Jesus is to be truly known and in which his real presence is felt and known. We are taken to the heart of things.
But this movement is subtle and apprended by faith. It is astonishing that the two disciples who met the Lord on the road did not recognize Him, even when He explained the Scriptures to them for we learn that “…beginning with Moses and the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.” (Lk. 24:27) Though in they realized only in retrospect that their hearts were burning, it was when “he took bread, and blessed, and broke, and gave it to them,” that their eyes were truly opened. This is the moment caught by Rembrandt. He helps us to see that the world of ordinary things is nonetheless shot through with the 'deeper' presence of God. This echoes the Letter to the Hebrews 11.1 and the telling description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…” The account of the meeting of the stranger on the road to Emmaus allows us to see how subtle and delicate a flower Christian faith really is and that for it to be otherwise would make of it something too ready made, too sure of itself. But Faith, it is suggested, is to provide the bedrock for our witness in a challenging world. Faith must be tested; tested, sometimes to the very limit of its capacity to remain as such, and it is in this way that God is experienced not as a religious antidote to all that life throws at us but as the source of its very hope. For many this remains hidden from direct view and all too quickly unheeded and discounted. But Christ still summons; and faith in HIm still beckons...
In Rembrandt’s painting we see Christ in His infinite tenderness at a banquet of love and intimate communion with His disciples, as with eyes turned to heaven, He breaks the bread. The two disciples, in the company of an uncomprehending servant, are astonished, as Christ is revealed in such to them in such a way. He is not dead now. He is alive in a way they could never have imagined. A new kind of very immediate recognition is made possible.
Blessed John Henry Newman writes:
A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next… There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed, but every now and then marvelous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face.”
Christ, the Light of the World, is radiant. In the painting, the luminous white table cloth, like an altar cloth, reflects His light. Rembrandt seems to be linking this scene to the mystery of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. In both there is a sudden revelation of His divinity in His humanity, and the disciples are amazed. “Their eyes were opened, and they knew him” (Lk. 24:33).
The breaking of the bread alludes to the Last Supper and to the great mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Mass. Soon (after the Ascension) they will no longer see Christ with their human eyes. Christ is teaching them: they must learn to recognize Him as we must learn to recognize him in his real presence both in the Eucharist and by natural extension in the world and in people around us. This is the Mystery of Faith. This lies at the heart of our witness, a witness both to what we see and know as well as a witness to a hope borne out of Jesus Christ our Lord, who has risen from the dead and now, as at Emmaus, beckon us into the new life that he has made possible.