Emmaus and the vanishing God

by maggi dawn

A few have asked for the homily I gave in Chapel today – as I did it without notes, I can’t give you a script, but I think this is roughly what I said:

Even after he died – even after he came back in those curious days of resurrection – Jesus still seems to have showed up most of the time when it was just about time to eat.

“Come and have Breakfast,” he said, on the beach.
“Have you got anything to eat?” he asked, in the Upper Room.

One of my favourite stories about Jesus and food is another resurrection story, when he joined two disciples who were walking out of Jerusalem on their way to dinner.  I’m talking, of course, about the supper at Emmaus. The two disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus—a decent length walk, Luke tells us it’s around seven miles—and along the way Jesus falls in with them, but they don’t recognize him at all.

Isn’t this strange? – they are talking about Jesus, with Jesus, and they don’t realize it’s him. Then they start discussing the scriptures, maybe even arguing back and forth about what Jesus meant when he used to talk about the scriptures. So now here they are, standing in the dust, arguing about the word of God with the Word of God. And still they don’t recognize him.

Eventually they arrive in Emmaus, and invite him to stay for supper. And we know from what Luke tells us that it’s when he blesses and breaks the bread that they recognize him. Of course we can see why they would – suddenly the immediacy of the Last Supper three nights earlier is right in front of their eyes.

Let me ask you this: have you ever wondered why they didn’t recognize him in the washing of the feet? I mean, Luke doesn’t tell us that they washed their feet, but they must have done. That was the culture. They had walked some seven miles, and you don’t walk anywhere in Jerusalem without getting your feet dirty. The desert loess gets in between your toes, and that dust sticks to you. You wash your feet when you arrive home, like we wash our hands before dinner.

So they sat side by side with Jesus washing their feet: why didn’t that remind them of three nights earlier? No, it was the blessing and breaking of the bread that did it. This sacrament thing. This moment when, in the middle of the ordinary and the mundane you suddenly realize: Locus Iste! God is in the Room!

But then he vanishes.

Isn’t it frustrating that it always seems to be that moment when you suddenly feel the reality and the presence of God, that he vanishes again. Like red tail-lights on the horizon, you can see where God has been, but you can never nail him down.

This vanishing at Emmaus: it reminds me of what Gregory of Nyssa wrote about the Life of Moses. Gregory pointed out that in all of Moses’ life there were three special, extra-significant moments where Moses had a close encounter with God’s presence.

The first one was in the crystal-clear clarity of the light of the burning bush. He was clueless and knew nothing of God – and how easy it is to see clearly when you don’t know anything yet. The next time, he’d been walking with God a while, and this time he met God in the misty, slightly foggy cloud. Not quite so clear this time. But the third time, when Moses got really ambitious and asked to see God face-to-face, it says he met God in the impenetrable darkness.

Impenetrable darkness.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the longer you walk with God, the clearer it would all become, the easier it would come to you. But Gregory tells us it’s quite the other way about. The closer you get to God, the harder it is to see anything clearly.

But here’s the thing: God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock, and then passes by, so Moses sees God’s back. He doesn’t see God face to face, but he sees where he’s just been. Kind of like Emmaus. He’s there, and there and there, and you don’t see it. And then you suddenly do see him and realize God is here – and he vanishes again.

And maybe that’s why Emmaus teaches us something about Holy Communion, this Eucharistic meal. Because we have all manner of ways to try to capture and enhance and honor the moment when God is here with us, tangibly present. We’re an ecumenical gathering here—and I know some of us capture and honor the moment with great ceremony, an aural and visual feast, incense and robes and candles and music. And others of us wrap it in great strings and showers and webs of words. And others aim for maximum simplicity—as if keeping it as uncluttered as possible will let the meal speak for itself. But whatever we do, however we style it, we can’t nail God down in this moment. As soon as we have meet God here, he’s off again: and the only choice we have is to follow after his disappearing back.

The Eucharist is never complete here in the room. The Eucharist takes us back outside – back to the world, back to work and families and life, back to following God’s spirit wherever that may lead us.

Bread is blessed and broken. God is present. And then he’s off again – red tail-lights on the horizon. But listen carefully, and you’ll hear his laughter in the breeze.