Wednesday 26 April 2023

Found by God

St Luke’s description of the scene of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the supper which they shared with our Lord is, I think, one of the most beautiful and powerful in his Gospel. It shows what a true artist the Evangelist was — and his words have served as an inspiration to some of the world’s most gifted artists, such as Valasquez, Caravaggio and Rubens, each painter lending his talents to give us his own interpretation of the moment the two disciples ‘recognised him in the breaking of bread.’

I recently discovered the portrayal of this scene by another artist, Jean-Marie Pirot (1926–2018) who worked under the name Arcabas. His representation in the church of St Hugues-de-Chartreuse, France, was used by Bishop Erik Varden on the cover of his excellent book The Shattering of Loneliness, which I strongly recommend to those looking for their next spiritual book. The Cistercian bishop writes of the picture: ‘The mood is of friendship. It draws the spectator in, hospitably. The pilgrims talk among themselves. Christ is pensively silent, unimposing. But it is he who lends the picture warmth. He knows that his companions need to talk before they can listen. They are caught up in what they have been through.’ And he is quite right. The two figures seem hardly to notice their guest, as they are obviously rehearsing, yet again, the fiasco of the past few days in Jerusalem, when their friend whom they called Master was taken and summarily executed by the Roman authorities at the behest of the Chief Priests and the Pharisees. The rest of the group had fled, leaving the whole movement in disarray. That was why they were putting as much distance between themselves and the Holy City. It was too dangerous, frightening and, besides, their hopes of the new Messianic kingdom now lay in tatters. It was over. What was there to stay for?

The picture shows the two disciples, Cleopas and his anonymous companion, deep in conversation, each holding a large glass of wine. Beside them sits Jesus, just about to change everything once again. He is holding in his hands a hunk of bread and is clearly about to break it for them, the action that will enable them to recognise his presence with them and to see what they had already been told by some of the women who had visited the empty tomb in the morning, but whose testimony they had clearly either rejected or misunderstood. ‘God,’ says Varden, ‘remembers us before we remember God. Christ seeks the wanderers out when they, for their part, have despaired of finding him. He hears their anguish as a silent call. In a moment, he will hold the bread of mourning up as a Eucharistic host.’

He goes on to make a further observation: ‘Behind the pilgrim on the right sits a fourth person, whose profile is concealed. I take that to be me — or you. We are invited to sit down and share our story, assured that we have never been out of God’s mind. The old has passed. The new has come. There is a golden shimmer of glory to things.’

I like that idea of our entering into the story too. And since it isn’t about one of the Apostles — it’s not about Peter or Thomas, but two unknown disciples, Cleopas and A.N. Other — it makes it a little easier for us to read ourselves into the story, whether as pilgrims or escapees, in a muddle, confused, disillusioned, disappointed, hopeless, angry…whatever we are feeling. Imagine we are on the way to Emmaus, running away, and then astonished, delighted even, to be found by God, who has gone in search of us. Luke uses this same effect in the parable of the Lost Son and elsewhere. It is something to hang on to when we, like Cleopas and his companion, feel disconsolate and discouraged by the difficulties and twists of life, and when we are feeling most turned in ourselves or just feeling sorry for ourselves, that we can sense the attentive and compassionate presence of Christ, who has fallen in beside us and is walking with us, quietly on the road.

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