3rd Sunday of Easter: Seeing Jesus

SCRIPTURES & ART: It is only in our sacramental encounter with Jesus — in the Holy Eucharist — that our eyes are fully opened to him, not just about him.

Rembrandt, “Supper at Emmaus,” 1629, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
Rembrandt, “Supper at Emmaus,” 1629, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris. (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospel of the Third Sunday of Easter focuses on Jesus and the two disciples going to Emmaus. 

Luke 24 recounts two appearances of Jesus after his Resurrection: in Emmaus and in Jerusalem, both on Easter itself. The chapter then concludes with a brief account (vv. 50-53) of his Ascension, which even Luke leaves to be further developed in his second work, the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11). 

Jesus’ first Easter appearance in Luke occurs on the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are bound for that village. Jesus joins up with them, “but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” He asks what they were talking about. Cleopas takes it for granted that everybody was talking about the death of Jesus, hence his somewhat pointed answer: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”

Jesus, having had a direct and intimate knowledge of those “things,” ignores Cleopas’ barb and feigns ignorance to let his interlocutor give his take on the events. His response includes truths, ignorance and personal expectations. Jesus, a mighty prophet, had been killed by the “chief priests and rulers.” Today his Tomb was found empty, with the women who reported that claiming to have seen angels who declared he was alive. Others who went to check out their story found an empty Tomb but no Jesus. We had hoped he was the Messiah who would have redeemed Israel, i.e., freed it from the Romans.

Now it’s Jesus’ turn gently to barb Cleopas. “How foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” 

But it’s not an insult. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things to enter into his glory?”

He’s got their attention. So, continuing on the road, he “interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures,” starting with the “Moses,” (i.e., the Law) and then the prophets.

Imagine that conversation. These men were pious Jews. They had mulled the Scriptures all their lives. But, on that road, Jesus opened their eyes — eyes that had been “prevented from recognizing him” — to a new way of looking at those texts … and him. This year, most of the Sunday Gospels come from Matthew and, as we have seen so far, Matthew has a penchant to cite the Old Testament. How often does Matthew sum up an episode with, “This was to fulfill what was said through X?”

So imagine Jesus talking about Micah expecting the Messiah from Bethlehem or Zechariah expecting Jerusalem’s deliverer to arrive on a donkey. Imagine how those Isaian texts about some mysterious “Suffering Servant” came alive through the lens of what happened 48 hours earlier. How the history of Abraham and Isaac suddenly was not just about them. How 30 pieces of silver reverberated all the way back to Jeremiah, Zechariah and Moses, and represented an inflationary adjustment over Joseph the Dreamer. How the minor prophet Jonah’s message was hardly minor.

By the time they got to Emmaus, they were almost certainly looking at the Old Testament through brand-new eyes … and they didn’t want this man to leave. Eventide provided an excuse to make him tarry: “’Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’” Who knows what else he might tell us?

So, they go in to a house. Was it an inn? Was it a relative’s or friend’s home? No matter. They sit down to supper. 

Nothing unusual there. In fact, probably what they expected. A meal after a trip and maybe some more interesting insights. 

Instead, Jesus “at table … took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30). 

Those four verbs were deliberately chosen. They clearly reflected the institution narrative of the Eucharist, now only three days old. 

“With that, their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight” (24:31).

Why does Jesus disappear? As a friend, Father Warren Kinne put it, it was because they open eyes recognized him there in the Eucharistic species. The two disciples in Emmaus are the first Christians to experience what we all do: not seeing Jesus in the human way they had been used to, but rather seeing him in the Eucharist as we do.

It’s the same point Jesus made in last week’s Gospel (though, in truth, that Gospel described an event that would have followed Emmaus): “Blessed are those who have not seen but believed.” Who see with the eyes of faith that Jesus is still here, albeit in another way.

The two Emmaus disciples’ eyes learned to do what all subsequent Christians do: recognize Jesus in “the breaking of the bread.”

And it was the sheer excitement of that discovery that makes them get up and go back immediately to Jerusalem. People in general preferred not to travel at night: daytime travel was safer. These two had already urged Jesus to stay with them rather than travel on. Now it’s them who can’t stay. They make their way back to Jerusalem to share what they have learned with the other disciples … which is where Jesus makes his second Lukan Easter appearance.

The disciples en route to Emmaus already began to have their eyes opened as Jesus broke open the Scriptures with them on the Table of the Word they shared on the road. But while their “hearts [were] burning … while he spoke to us on the way,” even they confess “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” The Scriptures they shared on the road illumined who that Jesus over there who died and may now have risen is; the Eucharist they shared illumines that Jesus is not “over there” but “right here,” risen and alive, not somebody we talked about but someone we talked to.  

Dale Ahlquist provides an interesting meditation. He had been a Protestant and is now a Catholic. He observes how Swiss artist Robert Zund, who painted a famous painting “The Road to Emmaus,” chose to focus on Jesus’ preaching along the road. We’ve all seen that painting of Jesus walking along with two disciples under some majestic oak trees. Ahlquist then observes that a Catholic artist like Caravaggio chose to focus not on the road but the end of the journey, when Jesus breaks bread. Word and sacrament — poles that have tended to divide rather than unite Protestants and Catholics. 

But, as we have seen, it is only in their sacramental encounter with Jesus — in the Eucharist — that their eyes are fully opened to him, not just about him.


Two Paintings by Rembrandt

Tempting as a discussion of Caravaggio’s Emmaus painting might be, today’s Gospel will be depicted instead by the great Dutch master, Rembrandt (1606-1669). Truth be told, Rembrandt painted the Supper at Emmaus twice, once in 1629 and again in 1648. Their differences might even be argued as a more Catholic versus more Protestant perspective. I comment on the earlier version (above), which dates from 1629 and is found at the Musée Jacquemart-André, a private institution in Paris. (The 1648 version, which appears below, is at the Louvre, so both should be included on any visit to the City of Light.)

Rembrandt’s painting captures the moment the disciples realize just who has been talking to them. The one person clearly in the light is a disciple (Cleopas?). His pullling backward and the expression on his face disclose the utter shock, surprise and elation in realizing he is seated with Jesus. The other disciple kneels at Jesus’ side. 

What appeals to me about this painting is that it captures the moment the disciple is illumined as to Jesus’ identity. Jesus himself appears to be disappearing: we see him only in silhouette and shadow. The “light of faith” now illumines him in the Eucharist, so that his human form is not really visible. The light, placed to the side, really is the light of Christ that enlightens the disciple, blessing him who sees him in the Eucharist on that table. As E. John Walford puts it, the positioning of that light to Jesus’ side allows the “burst of bright light” to allow Jesus to reveal himself. He is, after all, “the Light of the world” (John 8:12). That light is the enlightenment of God’s grace in the Eucharist as to whom is being received.

This is the miracle that happens in our churches each and every day, one obscure to and eliciting indifferencne from the rest of the world — not unlike the woman in the background, tending to the inn but oblivious to the miracle occurring on the premises. 

The 1648 painting doesn’t quite achieve the same effects. While light is always a critical element in a Rembrandt painting — the Dutchman is a master in the use of light — the 1648 painting is much lighter. Jesus is apparently beginning the Eucharistic Rite, with at least the two disciples beginning to recognize what and who is before them. The table and the arched recess almost create a church/altar-like setting. That said, I prefer the earlier painting because, in his shadow obscuring of Jesus’ corporeal face and body, Rembrandt captures the theological truth of the Emmaus story: the visible Jesus “vanished from their sight” to be visible in the Eucharist. Jesus is vanishing in the 1629 painting; he is not in the 1648 version. The Jacquemart commentary is right in saying the 1648 Louvre version could be “considered a history painting,” because Rembrandt’s artistic presentation in the 1629 painting is definitely a theological one.

Much has been made of a 2019 Pew study suggesting that even Catholics have confused notions about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. It’s generated a three-year effort by the U.S. Catholic Bishops to foster Eucharistic renewal (though some have questioned the likely efficacy of the program). The question the Gospel of Emmaus (and Rembrandt’s paintings) pose is: Do I see Jesus present in the Eucharist?

[These weekly “Scripture and Art” essays have two purposes: a theological explanation of the Gospel and a commentary on how it has been illustrated in Christian art. The goals are to foster a better understanding of the Scriptures and see how they have influenced our culture. Do you have questions? Something unclear or you want to explore further? Why not use the “Comments” field below to communicate your questions or thoughts?]

Rembrandt, “Supper at Emmaus,” 1648, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Rembrandt, “Supper at Emmaus,” 1648, Musée du Louvre, Paris.(c) 2010 MusÈe du Louvre / Philippe Fuzeau