'The Supper at Emmaus' by Caravaggio, had a profound effect upon me when I visited the National Gallery last summer during my sabbatical. It was one of those defining moments. While listening to a piece of music my emotions are quickly engaged, but up to this time, art hadn't effected me in the same way. It was while looking at this painting for a prolonged period that something changed. It was something to do with the centrality of the beardless Christ, the effect of darkness and light, the reaction of the disciples, the contrasting passivity of the servant, the sense that the fruit bowl is about to drop off the side of the table, the chair is being pushed back, the hole is about to develop in the elbow of the sleeve, the hand is coming out of the painting at you, and the way that I was invited into this action on the vacant side of the table. But it was more than all this. I think what did it was hearing a guide explain to a party, with what I conjecture was more than just an enthusiasm for the painting, that this is a freeze-frame, a split second before Jesus disappeared from their sight. I was profoundly moved. I can't explain it, except that the overall drama of the painting, paired with my love of the account of Jesus' appearance/disappearance, together with this interpretation, caused something to shift.
The road to Emmaus is a wondrous part of the Easter story, and captured so effectively in the recent BBC production of 'The Passion'. What strikes me in the accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances is how Jesus comes and goes at will, almost playfully, mischievously, 'now you see me, now you don't'. His presence can't be demanded, and he's only recognised when he chooses to be. The presence of the risen Jesus is not for us to grasp but for God to reveal. And this sets up a tension - there is a measure of innate insecurity in following Jesus. We rightly believe that God is with us, that God is for us, that God is actively involved in our lives, that God forgives us and hears our prayers. Jesus' last words were 'I am with you always'. We have the assurance of his loving presence. But from our side we have a tendency to treat God as if he has placed himself at our disposal, to do our will rather than the other way round. And maybe that's why there are seasons, when God seems to have disappeared, absented himself, hidden himself. We like to have everything sorted, certain, God-where-we-want-him, safe. But this isn't his way. As Mr Beaver reminds us in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', 'Aslan is not a tame Lion'.
Two serendipities occurred at a similar time to experiencing the painting. The first was to read Sally Vickers, The Other Side of You. I've read all her novels and so I was really looking forward to reading this one, only to discover to my surprise and delight that Caravaggio's painting is central to the plot.
The second was to come across a poem by a favourite poet, Denise Levertov, inspired by a painting by Valasquez, 'The Servant-Girl at Emmaus. Probably I'd read it before, but again it came as a delightful surprise. While imagined, it is a beautiful, tender reflection on what could have taken place.
She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his - the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he'd laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face - ?
The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejugshe's to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
wings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.