Easter Vigil

The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

This is one of my absolute favourite paintings. It captures perfectly that moment of
recognition, when these two disciples meet the Risen Lord.
This is the longest service of the year so it merits one of the shortest sermons. It
really speaks for itself. And so does this painting, although it is very clever indeed.
We are reminded of all those domestic paintings, of households gathered around
tables, of still life paintings of fruit, fowl and food.
But the thing that unifies this picture – that unifies the people, the food and the
setting – is the presence of the Risen Christ. As he reaches out to bless the food –
and notice his hand in shadow blessing his own bread – the human and the
inanimate dimensions are brought to life. Just as at the Eucharist which this painting
foreshadows, the ordinary things of life – ordinary people, ordinary food – are
brought together.
And then there is the moment of acknowledgment – the man on the left whose
eyebrows and face are a study in hidden surprise and recognition, as he prepares to
jump out of his chair. And the man on the right,  whose hands are stretched almost
beyond the normal width of a human span, is a picture of realization and abandoned
amazement. Even the cook, who stands at Jesus’ right, and who doesn’t feature in
the story and hasn’t had the privilege of knowing Jesus or walking with him on the
road, even he looks at Jesus with a raised eyebrow, questioning Jesus’ action, sensing
something extraordinary is happening. He is, if you like, a model of how discipleship
begins. He encounters Jesus, his gesture of curiosity is the way we all begin to
encounter the Risen Christ. He doesn’t make sense, dead men are not supposed to
rise, and yet our faith makes the bold claim this night that he has indeed been bodily
raised from death. Just as those of you who saw the face of Jesus, the man of Sorrows
on Good Friday afternoon, were asked to ponder what you made of the weeping
face of Jesus, now we are invited in this moment of recognition to ask ourselves
how we recognise the risen Christ and what effect, what transformation that will
have in our lives…
But two final reflections. One of the things I absolutely love about this picture is the
way, to use a film metaphor, it breaks the fourth wall. That moment when the
actors turn and address the viewers directly instead of interacting simply with one
another. Here that fourth wall is broken by the precariousness of the bowl of fruit,
by that chair on the left that is about to be thrust in our direction and, most
wonderfully of all, the left hand of the man on the right that explodes the fourth
wall. It is a mark of Caravaggio’s genius that he communicates the mould-breaking
moment of resurrection. This story is no longer simply a historic tale of a heroic life
and a tragic death. Now this story reaches out over time and space to make claims
on us who encounter it. It is not only these three that are privileged to see the
risen Christ. His resurrection is for all. It reaches down the ages to our age and
makes a claim of ultimate truth and meaning for us all. Nothing can ever be the
same again.
But let me leave you with the face of Jesus in this picture. It’s a really unusual face in
depictions of Jesus. He is beardless, slightly pudgy and, in artistic terms, very
unconventional. It is hard to imagine where you will see a Jesus in art who looks
more ordinary, more easily missed in the street, than this one. Of course, that’s
Caravaggio’s brilliance, for this is exactly what the story claims. We will encounter
Jesus not through facial recognition, but as he breaks bread for us. And yet, at the
same time, this Jesus is just as flesh and blood as all three other characters in the
painting. The Risen Christ is a risen human being; of course, the story of Easter
reveals that he is much more than a human being. But as we gaze upon this risen
Lord, we see our own destiny: we are as recognizable as each character in this
painting, Jesus included. We too, like the other three, are witnesses of the
resurrection of this God-Man; but we too, like Jesus, will find ourselves transformed
by the life-giving Spirit through the Father’s eternal love. Our humanity finds its goal
in this everyday figure, who is also the Son of God. We too have a destiny like his,
the Gospel promises; and so, the Gospel’s invitation is this, live out your ordinary
lives in the light of this promise. Whatever God calls you to, whatever your
vocation is, live it out in the light of the one who comes to us incognito, but whom
we recognise as our risen Lord as he feeds us on our journey with his risen life
itself.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.