The gift of grace is the gift of seeing.
Of all the resurrection stories in the gospels, my favorite has always been the story that Luke tells of two disciples encountering Jesus as they walk to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It has such a feeling of reality about it.
Distraught over the crucifixion of Jesus and now stories that he might have arisen, the two disciples are trying to make sense of the last three days in their lives. They try to sort things out as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.
As they walk and talk, a stranger joins them. He asks them what they are discussing. As they share their tumbled thoughts, he proceeds to help them understand what has happened. Turning to the Old Testament, he explains how a close reading of the Torah and prophets should have led them to expect that the Messiah would suffer before entering into his glory.
They are so caught up in the conversation that when they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to stay with them for the night. Let us hear more. But first there is the evening meal. As the meal begins, the stranger takes up the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them. (These are the essential and hallowed actions of the Eucharist.) At just that moment, they recognize the stranger. It is Jesus. But he vanishes.
What captivates me about this story is its theme of blindness and sight that weaves through the narrative. As the disciples walk their road, they do not recognize that the stranger joining them is Jesus, even though they must have spent a lot of time with Jesus over the years of his ministry.
They do not recognize the distinctive sound of his voice. Nor do they recognize his style of teaching even though they must have heard it many times before. Yet their hearts burn within them as they listen. Might that not have triggered memories?
It is only when the stranger picks up bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them, that they gain the gift of sight. They recognize their Master with an outburst of joy. Something about the actions of the Eucharist wipes away the obscurity that clouds their eyes and minds.
The Ring of Realism
What makes this story so realistic to me is that the description seems to be spot on right in describing my own spiritual experiences. Most of the time I live my life with no awareness of the presence of Jesus in the people and circumstances of my daily living. The man I meet in the grocery store is Sam the butcher. The woman in the doctor’s office is Jessie the nurse. I don’t expect to see Jesus in them. Nor do I expect to meet Jesus in my commute on the subway, or ordering a hamburger in McDonald’s.
Yet maybe I am or was. The Emmaus story makes that provocative suggestion.
To see Jesus in my daily life takes a special gift of sight, a miraculous gift of sight. It is not something that I can command. I have to receive it as a gift conferred in the gracious timing of the Giver.
In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. It is the same point the Emmaus story makes, but in different words. We can only see the movements of God in our world and in our own lives as we are given the gift of spiritual sight. Physical eyes do not see them, nor do intellectual powers.
As the parallel verse of John 3:5 suggests, the same thing can be said of spiritual experience. One can only enter, experience, the kingdom of God as one is born from above. Spiritual insight and spiritual experience are both gifts, not achievements.
Thomas Merton, for example, says this about contemplative prayer:
The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it…For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.*
Waking Up to Reality
Yet daily life and our encounters with other people, I believe, are infused with the spiritual. Our dilemma is that we see that only when our eyes are spiritually rinsed and our powers of perception are cracked open to let the spiritual light beams stream in. Or in other words as Merton might put it, we need to wake up.
So for all of us, we are in the position of Bartimaeus the beggar. When Jesus meets him on the road leading out of Jericho, he cries out to Jesus. When Jesus stops and ask him, What do you want me to do for you?, the beggar answers, My teacher, let me see again.(Mark 10:46-52)
All of us who would see Jesus in our daily lives must pray the same request. And wait for the precious gift to be given.
The Emmaus story, however, suggests that there is one place where that miracle is most likely to happen. It is in the experience of the Eucharist. When we participate in that service of thanksgiving, when the bread is blessed and broken, the wine blessed and poured, we have our best chance to see into the kingdom of God.
For there is nothing more basically daily and natural than the eating of bread, nothing more material and bodily in our lives, and yet here is where we stand our best chance of having our eyes opened to see in this material act the action of the Lord lovingly feeding us. Daily, material life is fulfilled as it is lifted into and fused with the realm of the spirit.
It is where I have and still do most experience God as a loving father and extravagant host. It has been and is a transformative moment for me. As I participate in this ritual over and over again, maybe, just maybe, my eyes will be opened to see that what is true of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is also true of all my daily living. That is at least my prayer.
* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books, 1961. Page 6.