I want to tell the Emmaus story of Luke 24 in four paintings. Here’s the first …
The Spanish artist Diego Velázquez depicted this scene in 1618 in a painting called “Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus”. Jesus and the disciples are portrayed in the top left corner. But the picture focuses all our attention on the kitchen maid. The astonished look on her face as she overhears their conversations suggests she has just realised that a dead man has eaten her food!
The meal is hinted at, but it is all washed and tided away. The central item is a piece of rag. The supernatural world has collided with the ordinary world. That’s what happens as a result of the first Easter. God’s coming world invades our dying world.
One of our problems is that we know the end of Easter story so well. We know that Jesus is risen. And so we find it hard to enter into the disappointment, grief and loss of the disciples on the Emmaus road. ‘We had hoped,’ they say.
Yet many people today are following their own version of the Emmaus road. They are walking in disappointment. They are walking away from hope. For many this involves walking away from the church.
It’s striking that Jesus does not begin with a resurrection pronouncement. He begins with a question: ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ (17) Luke captures the drama of it. ‘They stood still, their faces downcast’ (17) They’re walking along the road, but they have to stop, stand still, pause before they can begin.
Jesus gives them space to tell their story, to share their pain, to speak their disappointment. We may need to do that as well. The more we understand people’s struggles, the more our message of resurrection will connect with them.
But it’s not just individuals who are walking their version of the Emmaus road. Our world is between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. “We had hoped,” our culture says. Our world used to be full of hope, full of visions of progress – capitalism, socialism, scientific progress, liberalism. All shared a common sense that history was an onwards, upward march (all distorted forms of Christian hope). But our postmodern world has a strong sense that progress comes at a cost: poverty, terrorism, pollution, social fragmentation. ‘We had hoped.’ But now hope is disappearing.
We increasingly live in a world in which the Bible story seems out of place. People are not interested in our message. Christianity is passé. People today no longer think they need God. We’ve written God out of the European story. He didn’t create the world and he won’t bring it to an end. God is part of our history, but not part of our future. We’ve grown up and no longer need the faith in God that primitive people or children need. We can live without God. Our culture is on the Emmaus road, heading away from Jerusalem.
What’s interesting about Velázquez’s painting is that sometime after it was finished, the painting was altered by its new owner. A few centimetres were cut from the left-hand margin (so that one of the disciples is missing) and the Emmaus scene was covered over. The original version was only rediscovered in 1933 when the painting was cleaned.
Not only that, but I can show you what it used to look because there’s a second version without any reference to the Emmaus story. We don’t know whether it was by Velázquez himself or someone copying him, but the second version has edited out the Easter story.
Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture #1. Our world has lost transcendence
It’s a symbol of our culture. This is what we’ve done. Our culture has removed the divine. We’ve edited out transcendence. And what are we left with? Rags! In Velázquez’s original painting there is a wonderful collision of eternity and time that transforms everyday life. The rag is elevated. It has just been used to serve God. all of life, everyday life, is full of God’s glory.
But when you take away transcendence, when you edit Jesus out of the picture, you’re just left with rags.
Christ is hidden in our world. He has ascended into heaven to receive all authority and glory. But we don’t yet see that reality on this earth. Colossians 3:3-4 says: ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.’ The return of Christ is more often described in the New Testament as a manifestation. The reign of Christ is now hidden. But one day it will be revealed. All the earth will see his glory and every knee will bow.
In a world in which Christ is hidden, how is he known? The story provides two answers – each of which will be represented by another painting.
This material is adapted and expanded from a chapter in my book, A Meal with Jesus. A Meal with Jesus is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.