The Art of Recognition – 4/06/08 – Luke 24:13-35

Christ’s Appearance at Emmaus.  Franz Jantzen.  1987



This image may be reproduced for exhibit promotional purposes if it remains uncropped and is properly credited – for all other usage contact Franz Jantzen at (202) 829-8200.

In Peace House there are two black and white photographs, matted and framed, hanging on the wall in the front meeting room.  They were given to us by a former member of the Fellowship, Franz Jantzen.  Franz was a part of CMF with his parents Naomi and Carl and then he moved to Washington, DC in the mid-late 80’s where he still lives and continues to work with black and white photography.  This is one of those photographs he gave us.  It’s fairly abstract, with this dark background, and this streak of light a little off center to the right, with different flecks of light around it.  The title is “Christ’s Appearance at Emmaus.”  Since I tend to frequent the Peace House office on a regular basis I’ve enjoyed having the image in front of my eyes and thinking about how it relates to the Emmaus story in Luke’s gospel.  It is abstract, so there are plenty of ways of interpreting the image.  When Luke tells about the two disciples moment of recognition when this stranger with them took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, and they see that this is Christ, and they get up and return to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about this, I’ve always pictured these two disciples running.  Often this streak of light looks to me like someone with their arms up in the air running to tell what they’ve just discovered.

I was curious to hear from Franz about where he took this and how he came to connect it with the Emmaus story.  This past week I tracked down his DC phone number and he was gracious enough to talk with me – from his darkroom – about this picture.  Here’s what he said:  The photo was taken in 1987 and at the time one of the themes he was working with in his photography was taking pictures of things in various states of deterioration, often human constructed environments being slowly overtaken by the processes of nature.  He gave examples of a wooden structure that was starting to rot, or algae growing on the wood.  He would look to capture interesting patterns that had their own form of beauty. 

This particular photograph was taken soon after he had moved to DC.  It is actually a picture of some algae growth on a marble wall on the side of a large staircase on the western side of the US Capitol building.  In the pre- 9/11 world when security wasn’t so tight he was able to walk around the yard to the side of this large staircase and go behind some shrubs that were planted there and get this shot.  The algae adds the texture and then the sunlight that was hitting the marble makes for this steak of light and these other specks that you can see.  

All these details were fascinating, but here’s the part that really caught my attention.  He said this picture was unique because he would typically give his photos a very literal name, just describing what it was.  Like this photo could have been called “Algae growing on marble slab on staircase of Capitol building,” or something like that (my words, not Franz’s).  But when he was developing the negatives he recognized that the pattern of the light looked a lot like a Rembrandt etching he was familiar with about Christ appearing at Emmaus, where Christ is surrounded by light.  So, he said, this was the only photo of this type that he could remember giving a name that added an interpretation to the image.  He recognized its similarity to the Rembrandt image, and called it “Christ’s Appearance at Emmaus.”

I’ll pass it around now and feel free to take your time looking at it before you hand it off to the next person, and then whoever is last can place it back here on the table.

  Pilgrims at Emmaus.  Rembrandt. 1628-1629


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Franz’s telling of his experience of recognition that happened with this photograph added a whole new depth to it for me.  Because the story of Emmaus is all about the art of recognition.  Something at first appearing to be one thing, a stranger traveling on the road, a casual act of hospitality in sharing a meal together and breaking bread — and then the recognition that what is going on here is actually something, someone quite different than what was originally thought.                            

There is a great line from an essay on resurrection by philosopher Marianne Sawicki.  She says: “How do the texts indicate that the Risen Lord may be recognized? It bears noting that in the Gospel narratives, resurrection witnesses are asked to recognize not something dead as living, but rather something living, but unknown, as Jesus who died.”  (“Recognizing the Risen Lord,” ,Theology Today, 1988.)

This is the experience of the two companions walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus several days after their friend and master was martyred.  Jerusalem, of course, was the place where it all went down.  The donkey entry parade, the confrontations in the temple, the final meal with Jesus and his followers, the anguished prayers in the garden and the night of betrayal and desertion, the rigged trial, the beatings and crucifixion and burial.  Now, only a couple days after these events, these two are leaving ground zero and heading toward the obscure town of Emmaus that Luke tells us is about seven miles from Jerusalem.  Their mood can be described as both dejected and confused.  Dejected, visibly saddened, because Jesus is dead and their hopes of what he was going to accomplish are broken.  Confused because that day some of their women friends in the circle of Jesus’ closest followers had claimed that his body wasn’t at the grave and that angels had told them that he was alive, but no one had actually seen him.   

In their travels, as they are discussing these things, they’re joined by a third member, someone they don’t know.  Now Luke lets us cheat by telling us right away that it’s Jesus.  Verse 15 says, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  We know it’s Jesus, but these friends don’t know it’s Jesus.  Who knows what the person looked like to them.  Might have been an old decrepit man, might have been a young orphaned girl, might have been a 33 year old rabbi with wounds in his hands and feet.  The point is that they didn’t recognize anything special or holy or significant or Jesus-like about this individual who was with them.  They are walking with someone living, but unknown, and there is no connection being made with Jesus who died. 

I’m struck with the different ways that Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus as being alive after his death.  Of all the resurrection stories, Matthew, the passage we heard Easter Sunday, is the most fantastic.  There is an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven like a bolt of lightning, guards who were watching over the tombs of the dead shaking and becoming like dead men themselves, and then Jesus suddenly appearing to the women as they rush back to describe the empty tomb to the other disciples.  In Matthew the rising of Christ is an earth shaking event that registers off the charts of the cosmic richter scale.  In Luke, the first encounter with Jesus being raised up to life is expressed through an encounter with a stranger on the road, and a shared meal.  Nothing all that out of the ordinary or earth shaking about it.  In fact, it’s all so mundane that the two walking with this stranger have no idea who they’re talking with the whole time. No idea that their ordinary walking and talking and inviting in the stranger and sharing a meal together are holy acts shared with Christ. 

For the last while I haven’t been able to think of the Emmaus story without thinking about my friend Shem.  Shem was one of my closest friends – someone I’d known since college and been a roommate or housemate with in a couple different settings.   About four years ago Shem took his own life and I’ve missed him ever since.  There were a lot of things that made Shem unique, but two things in particular were his drumming and his biking.  These things defined a lot of who he was as a person.  And they were more than just hobbies for him.  I consider them to be things that he experienced as holy and sacred.  He drummed because he loved music and the rhythm in his body and he biked just about everywhere in the city because it was important to him try and find ways to live without being as dependent on oil and the kind of violence that we are willing to dish out to defend our ability to use oil.  So Shem drummed and he biked.  And since he has been dead, whenever I hear a drum or see a person biking in the city he is often the first thought that comes to mind.  His presence becomes very strong with me at these times.  You could say that I recognize Shem in people who look nothing like Shem, but who are doing the things that Shem did.  Maybe you experience this as well with a friend or parent or family member who has died but whose presence is particularly strong at certain times.  Not only do I recognize Shem’s aliveness in these things, but I have also become more of an urban biker as a result of his life.  He showed me that this can be a holy act, and I love having the chance to get around by bike whenever possible.    

So if it’s the drumming and the biking where I recognize Shem, how is it that these disciples recognize Jesus?  It’s in an ordinary act that Jesus made holy.  Jesus is not recognized in the Emmaus story until this stranger does something that was absolutely central to who Jesus was.  Here’s how Luke describes it: “As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” 

If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  “He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  Think feeding of the 5000.  Think Last Supper.  Think the many times that Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes and scholars and teachers and his followers.  This is the ordinary world that Jesus had made holy – filled with significance and the grace of God’s presence. 

This is what caused those disciples, as evening is falling, to hurry – personally I think they ran — the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples that the Lord had risen indeed and to emphasize that they had know him in the breaking of the bread.

Training his readers in the art of recognition is key to why Luke wrote his gospel in the first place.  That we learn to recognize Christ’s holy presence in the everyday elements of our lives.  Luke’s gospel begins with a reference to this very thing when Luke describes his reason for writing.  In his opening paragraph he says, “Many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account…so that you may recognize (same word as the Emmaus story) the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”  All of the stories and parables in between help us to see that Jesus is in the process of redeeming the whole world – the sacred and the profane – sinners, strangers, the religious the irreligious, the sick, the dead, the living, drumming, biking, the gathering for conversation, and the gathering for meals in the blessing and breaking and giving of bread.  And so the writer of Colossians can later say, “For in (Christ) all the fullness of God was please to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”  Colossians 1:19-20.

A black and white photo.  A dear friend who ended his own life, but lives on.  A Gospel narrative.  One more Emmaus story.  This the one about what happens when a congregation made up of fairly normal people doing fairly normal things – walking along the path with friends and strangers, sharing meals together and with the poor in their community and with the homeless of the city — recognize that everything they’re doing is filled with the presence of the Living Christ.  That in the course of their every day living and being a community together, Christ has been with them the whole time – at the table, at the desk at work, in the home, in the hospital, in their neighborhood —  and that they get to be a part of this work of reconciling all things to God.  This is the story about a congregation that recognizes that Christ is with all of it — which means that it all matters.  It’s all important.  All of our work and life together.  As simple as a potluck or welcoming a visitor, or as elevated as an Easter celebration.  It’s all connected to God’s presence in the world.  It’s all a part of our ministry as a congregation.     

If something as basic and ordinary as algae and a little bit of sunlight on a marble wall can be recognized as having a likeness to a Rembrandt, then surely the basic and ordinary people and situations we encounter in our life together can be recognized as having a likeness to Christ.  Matthew was right, this is an earthquake that shakes the foundations of the world.