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Finding Jesus in the Hard Times in Our Lives

It’s the evening of the first Easter Day.

Two of Jesus’ followers are walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

It’s a distance of about seven miles—perhaps a two-hour walk.

What is going through their heads?

Maybe these two grief-stricken followers wanted to just get away for a while. Think about what it must have been like for them to lose hope.

The one in whom they’d invested all their hope was gone!

Suddenly a third figure comes alongside and falls into step with them. He asks them an ironically delicious question.

Are you the only one who does not know…?’

The one asking the question is the ONLY person who knows the answer—but the two disciples have no idea with whom they speak.

As you read this story with the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure the biggest question on your mind is this: How did those disciples not recognise Jesus?

These were followers of Jesus. They knew him. They had been with him. But they didn’t recognise him even though they were looking straight at him.

How is this possible?

When we moved to our new home 18 months ago, we met an elderly couple who live opposite. She is a curious and busily active woman who likes to know everyone’s business. He is a bluff rough diamond; a retired builder is more at home shovelling cement into a wheelbarrow.

He looked like he’d studiously avoided the barbers for many years—long hair was barely kept in place with an ever-present flat cap and a full beard.

A few weeks ago, he fell ill and had a spell in hospital. When he returned, he’d obviously been prevailed upon to attend to his appearance—he was shorn of his flowing locks and clean-shaven.

In all honesty, I didn’t recognise him.

I thought for a brief, fleeting moment that the woman had bumped him off and got herself a new bloke!

But, no, it was the same guy—he looked completely different.

I think something of that elusive quality is captured in this painting from 1601 by the Italian master Caravaggio.

It hangs in the National Gallery in London—one of my favourite places to visit whenever I’m in London.

It is a powerful, even overwhelming painting, measuring just under two metres wide and one and a half metres deep. It captures the moment when the two Emmaus Road disciples suddenly realise who Jesus is.

Unusually in this painting, we see Jesus portrayed as beardless. It’s not the only Renaissance painting with a clean-shaven Jesus. But it is infrequent.

Why does Caravaggio break with the common tradition of the time?

Is Caravaggio perhaps trying to show that Jesus—crucified, resurrected but not-yet-Ascended—was somehow different? Could that be one reason why the two disciples failed to recognise him on the road?

At the end of Mark’s Gospel are a few verses which don’t appear in the earliest manuscripts. Most ancient manuscripts end at verse 8, but some extra verses often appear in footnotes in modern bible translations.

If we look at these verses, we see an interesting snippet.

After these things, he was revealed in another form to two of them as they walked on their way into the country (Mark 16.12, emphasis mine).

It’s hard to know for sure why the disciples failed to recognise Jesus.

Was there something different about his appearance? Caravaggio may be hinting at that by painting Jesus clean-shaven.

Were they so downcast that they could not countenance the idea of Jesus being there?

Or was there some supernatural ‘shielding’ of Jesus from their eyes?

We don’t know.

But it’s a reminder that much about Jesus is not as clear and easily observed as some suggest.

How often we fail to see what is right there in front of us—and yet we often leap to conclusions and certainty about Jesus.

And just as there is a mysterious and elusive quality about Jesus in this story, perhaps we should reflect on how much we fail to understand about Jesus.

The theme of Jesus’ self-revelation continues as we look at this painting.

On the right of the scene, we see a figure with an older, careworn face and modest clothing, suggesting a working man. He wears a scallop shell on his clothing—the traditional symbol for St James, a fisherman and disciple of Jesus.

Could this be James? We cannot know for sure…

What we can be sure of is his astonished reaction! He flings out his arms in a gesture reminiscent of how Christ met his death.

His left arm appears to be reaching out to us—as if to pull us into the scene, drawing us in and including us in this moment of revelation.

This second disciple, again clothed with the traditional garb of the common labourer, rocks back in astonishment at recognising Jesus.

If the other man is James, this must be Cleopas (Luke 24.18).

His jacket strains at the seams —literally tearing apart—and his hands grip the chair in amazement and fear. It’s almost as if the chair itself will fly off in the viewer's direction.

How often are we surprised by God? Is our faith predictable, even dull—or are we still captivated by a God who constantly shows up in ways we cannot predict?

If you are anything like me, those moments often come unexpectedly. And I often experience God away from the confines of the Church.

Sometimes in the least likely places.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Carmelite friar, wrote about “practising the presence of God”—liberating our experience of God from the narrow confines of church or worship services—and finding him everywhere.

His book, Practising the Presence of God, is still worth a read today if you stumble upon a copy in a second-hand bookshop.

The fourth—often overlooked figure—in the painting is the innkeeper. Notice the quizzical look on his face. He is serving a meal, a task he has done many times before.

To him, nothing out of the ordinary is happening—and his puzzled face contrasts the over-excited reactions of the two disciples.

He gazes down on Jesus as if oblivious to who this man is—and his significance.

What do we miss that God is doing? None of us sees the totality of all God is doing in our lives and the world. As St Paul wrote,

For now, we see in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13.12).

Caravaggio has neatly presented us—in these three down-to-earth people—with snapshots of how many of us experience God at different times.

There are occasions when we are literally “surprised by God”—those “wow” moments.

And there are also times when we are oblivious, too wrapped up in our daily tasks even to notice him.

Jesus raises a hand of blessing over the ordinary food of bread and wine, infusing it with meaning and power.

Is it this which causes the scales to fall from the eyes of the disciples?

It is undeniable that when Jesus takes, blesses and breaks bread, they recognise Him as their Lord.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him (Luke 24.30).

At that moment, Jesus disappears from their sight. And the disciples say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

It’s helpful to notice that whilst the disciples were initially unsure about the identity of their mysterious companion, they sensed something transformational.

Something burned deep within their hearts.

What burns in OUR hearts today? What are the deep longings in our souls?

What are the needs in the world or in our lives that set us aflame with holy passion?

Those of the questions we can ponder this week as we reflect on the story of the disciples meeting with Jesus—and how Caravaggio portrays their encounter over supper.


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