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Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Emmaus moment - a case of peripheral vision?





Sight is a strange thing.  To think about it is to discover a swirl of ideas and links, images and echoes. 
  • Proverbial wisdom claims ‘seeing is believing’ but that same wisdom also holds the adage that ‘There are none so blind as those who won’t see.’ 
  • Is sight reliable, or is it subject to optical illusions? Is sight influenced by expectations and preconceptions?  
  • The concept of sight quickly becomes a metaphor for understanding – as when one says ‘Once I was blind but now I see’ – and we speak of ‘enlightenment’. 
  • Similarly I find myself wondering how sight is related to ‘knowing’ i.e. to cognition and then, by way of a linguistic segue, what is implicit in recognition? May it involve a kind of  ‘re-knowing’?  
  • So in Luke 24.31 we hear: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Note that Luke does not say that they saw Jesus but that ‘they recognized him’.  Is there just a resonance of a phrase in Genesis 3.7 of Adam and Eve when we are told “the eyes of the two were opened and they recognized they were naked’?


The other thought that intrigues me is the notion of peripheral vision: that partial wider vision where we sense as much as see objects at the margins of our sight.  We turn and look at what we think we have seen – it may be there or not, or, at least, not as we thought.   Maybe peripheral vision is a useful way of thinking about how we recognise the activity of God in our lives – something only spotted in passing, a bare glimpse of something only discerned or recognised later.

"stay with us" The Road to Emmaus, Duccio, 1308-11
Holding such thoughts we may start to find some fresh ways of engaging with this story of the Emmaus experience.  The feel of the story is strangely serene.  The two disciples are joined by a stranger: they relate the terrible story of what has happened and their loss of hope; the stranger then interprets the whole of scripture and the story of Israel to explain why all this had to happen exactly as it had; then at the meal – the familiar action of the breaking of the bread triggers the Emmaus moment – and with that moment of recognition, the stranger vanishes.  From there it is a rush back to Jerusalem to report the experience and in turn to be also told of what the other disciples have experienced and yes, indeed, the Lord is risen.

It is a very accomplished narrative.

Luke shows us how the process of telling and interpreting various fragments of experience begins to build a community narrative – and even more than that – begins to create the community itself.  The fragments that have been scattered in different directions (the women at the tomb, Peter, all who had run to the tomb, now these men on the road) are being gathered into one place with one shared story – which is as we have it – “the Lord has truly risen”.  The stage is set now for much more. We are part of it – this is also our story – every time we celebrate Eucharist, every time we share our faith, share a testimony, we are doing what those disciples did. We are in this story.

The Emmaus moment is in our lives and in the story of the church.  When the disciples’ eyes were opened it was in a context that we recognise as the Eucharist.  That thought naturally shapes the way we approach the Eucharist, our openness, our expectation and our hope.  We say ‘The Lord is here’ and are on the alert. But that Emmaus moment lingers in numerous passages of our lives, moments of intimation, presence, loss, despair and wonder – perhaps only grasped peripherally but later seen more clearly.

In the Episcopal Church, the daily Office has a Collect for the Presence of Christ: it is a prayer that really opens peripheral vision, nudges us into living into the Emmaus moments of life when the presence of God may seem obscure but is recognised in retrospect.


“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.”

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