Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
When he was about eighteen, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660), created one of his first paintings, titled simply, “Kitchen Maid.” A copy at Chicago’s Art Institute depicts a mixed-race maid. She’s the offspring of a Spanish Christian and an African Muslim, and therefore, disfavored by both communities. She holds a ceramic jug of wine.
For decades, the original version in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin likewise showed only this servant girl—that is—until it was finally cleaned in 1933—and suddenly—the true subject of the painting became clear. The maid stands in the foreground while Jesus and two men are seated in another room in the background. In Velázquez’s imagination, a woman worked behind the scenes to prepare and serve the meal. She is unnamed and unmentioned in Luke’s gospel. She is lost to history. She is black. She sees Jesus clearly while other remain in the dark. Velázquez re-centers her in his painting. (Turn to page 12 in your worship folder to see a copy.)
British poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997) picks up where Velázquez leaves off, in a poem called, “The Servant Girl at Emmaus.”
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?
That very morning, the women had discovered the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Angels dressed in dazzling clothes told them ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen.’ (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!) They ran to tell their brothers everything. ‘But these words had seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe’ (Luke 24:11).
It was Easter Sunday in Emmaus but, for Cleopas and the other disciple, resurrection has yet not dawned. Sometimes, it happens for us like that. “On the very day we pack our churches, flower our crosses, and sing our “Alleluias,” the road to Emmaus stretches out ahead of us, offering defeat, disillusionment, and misrecognition. Which is to say, sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days. Sometimes new life comes in fits and starts. Sometimes, seeing and recognizing the risen Christ is hard.” (Debi Thomas, But We Had Hoped, Journey with Jesus, 4/19/20). That being said, of course, it could have been so much easier if they had simply believed the women.
This is a recurring theme in scripture: what we think we already know blinds us from seeing the truth we are living and will eventually come to know only through the work of the Holy Spirit and the benefit of hindsight. It’s difficult for us to comprehend how decisively the cross had signaled defeat for the first disciples. “The crucifixion of Jesus was … the complete and final devastation of their hope” (NT Wright). They all knew what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. A crucified person is under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So, for them, Christ on a cross, had a perfectly clear theological and political meaning: It meant that the search for the Messiah would continue, that God had not forgiven Israel’s sins, and that pagans still ruled the world.
As Jesus walked the road beside them, the disciples lamented, “But we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:21) How often could we say the same? But we had hoped this year would be better. But we had hoped all our prayers and efforts would bear more fruit. On that first Easter Sunday, the disciples headed home. They had given up. Their dreams fell back to earth and were swallowed up by violence and shame. They shuffled seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus in grief and despair—when Jesus came walking beside them!
The disciple’s great discovery was a flower which blossomed in fields of disappointment and gloom. “If you are in the dark, it does not mean that you have failed and that you have taken some terrible misstep.” Former Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For many years, I thought my questions and my doubt and my sense of God’s absence were all signs of my lack of faith, but now I know this is the way the life of the spirit goes.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark)
Jesus told us where to find him. Look for me, Jesus says, in the bible. The disciples felt their hearts burn while Jesus walked with them recounting scripture. Look for me, Jesus says, in the sacraments. Their eyes were opened as he took bread, blessed, broke it, and gave it to them. Suddenly, the light of Easter dawned upon them and the whole world looked different. Christ was alive and he was already with them. Because Christ is alive and lives in us, we can live differently too.
Perhaps, the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus, and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus near the empty tomb, form part of the gospels’ larger message that we must also learn to recognize Christ in the faces of those around us. Look for me in the margins, Jesus says. Listen for me in the voice of a stranger. See me in the face of a child. Find me among the poor. Ask the kitchen maid, the black servant girl in Emmaus. She can tell you all about me.
On this, the day after Earth Day, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the gospel of John widens this circle even further. Jesus is the beating heart of all creation. After Easter light has dawned, we cannot treat other people or the natural world as mere resources to be exploited. Learn about me, Jesus says, from the beauty of the earth. Living resurrection and finally seeing what is right in front of us that we didn’t used to see means receiving one another and the natural world as a beloved and wise teacher—the face of the living Christ in our midst.
Through the Holy Spirit, Christ leads us on a journey to God, a journey in which disappointed hopes are interrupted by the recognition that the Risen Lord walks by our side. Jesus is our companion on the way, who breathes life into our despair and re-frames our aimless, anxious journeys into the cruciform Way of the cross. Now we know who it is who travels with us: Jesus is the Way. Now we know the path along which Jesus accompanies us: it is, as Luke characterizes Christianity, in both his gospel and Acts, “the way” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25; see also Jn 14:6 and Heb 10:20). (Alyce McKenzie)
St. Paul proclaimed to the philosophers of Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Our entire lives are lived in God. There is no place we can go outside the loving and eternal circle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the living sanctuary in which we dwell that gives inspiration to our mission at Immanuel. We strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Dwelling in the shelter of God and one another, let us seek to open and extend this welcome to anyone who has yet to discover that they too are so deeply embraced, accompanied, and loved.