Last Sunday we read or listened to the story of “doubting” Thomas who needed to see the risen Jesus to believe. As people of faith, we might regard this as a lack of faith, but charitably understand the circumstances that gave rise to Thomas’ doubt. This week, however, we have an instance of seeing the risen Christ, but a failure to perceive Him, that is, until He makes it plain that it is, indeed, Him.
The pair walking to Emmaus are identified as disciples, followers of Jesus who clearly thought he was the Messiah. Yet they do not recognize Him even as they walk and talk with Him, even as their “hearts burning within them” ought to have told them they were in the presence of someone other than a random stranger on the road.
Sight, seeing and perceiving are a motif that pervades the gospels. As a theme, it is quite evident in Luke’s account, which raises questions as to why the evangelist thought it necessary to highlight this.
We know from a comparison of the four canonical gospels that the Gospels of Luke and John give a much fuller account of the Resurrection of Jesus than do Matthew and Mark. Yet, these latter gospels are earlier than Luke and John (John being written as much as forty years after Matthew and Mark who are thought to have penned their gospels circa 65-70 A.D.). We also know that some time in the life of the early church an addendum, so to speak, was added to Mark to include more detail to his version of the resurrection, and this was by adding in material from Luke and John. This addition is often identified in your Bibles as “the longer version of Mark”—a heading to several paragraphs that follow the story of the empty tomb and the story’s original abrupt ending with the women fleeing in terror.
That addition is another indicator of concern around the issue of seeing yet failing to perceive. Are we guilty of this?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, was a great promoter of observation. That is, “observation” was what he called the proper perception of the environment; and he would upbraid his assistant, Dr. Watson for his failure to perceive fully what he had clearly seen.
In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes instructs Watson on the difference between seeing and observing:
“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”
“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
For the Christian there are many commonplace examples of observing over simply casting one’s eyes around, and so perceiving what it is that is being seen. Foremost is the world itself, that for us, is evidence of God as creator: there is something rather than nothing; and this something came from nothing. And no, pained explanations by particle physicists and other scientists and atheist laymen that point to pre-atomic, “proto” particles, etc. still haven’t grasped that they are still talking about “something” whose existence still comes from nothing!
It is often argued that what this is, is not perception but “perspective.” And perspectives can be skewed, distorted, subject to the phenomenon of parallax, and so on. Where a set of events that coincide to a good effect for people is perceived as miraculous by a person of faith, the more agnostic person’s perspective is that we only have a happy coincidence. And, of course, the tragedies that come from both natural calamity and malign human agency, are pointed to as proof that God is either impotent or non-existent (indeed, if He can’t stop evil, He is not God; or if He chooses to let evil occur, then He is scarcely worth our worship). Faithful Christians perceive in the evils of this world the good that God draws from them, as St. Paul tells us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Think here of the “good” of Good Friday, which any non-Christian would be apt to find a strange way to describe a day of torture and death.
Why do the disciples on the road fail to perceive with whom they are speaking? How is it that, in John’s resurrection account, Mary Magdalene in the tomb garden cannot correctly observe that the man she is speaking with is not the gardener but the risen Lord? Well, just as Thomas was prey to his doubts, these have fallen victim to their despair forgetting what they had been told by Jesus ahead of His passion. Admittedly it would have been difficult to understand that He was being quite literal and predictive in saying He would die and rise again. But I daresay that many a Christian today has difficulty grasping this, even with the benefit of having the whole of the Easter story as history rather than prediction.
The historical context for the early Church is rather informing. To put it simply, it was a tough go at the end of the first century and the early second century. The famous Apostles were passing from this life; all but for John, meeting a martyr’s death. Persecution was a constant. Initially, the trouble came from Jewish authorities centred on the Jerusalem Temple. St. Paul, we recall, was an agent of that authority prior to his conversion. He traveled extensively throughout the Roman province of Syria to root out cells of the nascent Church. Later, the Romans, in dealing with a succession of Jewish revolts in Judea (between 65 and 135 A.D.) made no distinction between Jews and Christians in Judea and Syria. Emperor Nero, at Rome, scapegoated the Christians as the reason for the great fire that infamously destroyed more than two-thirds of the ancient city in 64 A.D. Public executions were many, the victims included St. Peter. Roman hostility to Christianity would remain constant for the following three hundred years with intermittent periods of severe persecution. It was in the earliest phase of all this that Luke and John wrote their gospels (between 80 and 110 A.D.). They perceived the need to keep folks’ eyes upon the prize of their redemption, and to not be distracted or unduly distressed by the events happening around them. From the rich oral tradition of the early Church, stories of encounter with the risen Jesus who was not at first recognized were incorporated into these later gospels that would circulate among congregations of Christians living in the shadow of imprisonment and death.
We are daily bombarded with bad news. The coronavirus has prompted much of the media to dwell upon it exceedingly so as to capture the attention of viewers and listeners as that is the source of both their revenue, and their power—to get your attention, keep it, and then sell that to advertisers who are anxious in the current economy to sell their products and services. This isn’t to say it’s all “fake news”, all partisan and so either unduly pessimistic/optimistic; that there is no good and valuable information, but one needs to be discerning and perceive what is actual from what is speculative; what is real from what is imagined either out of pessimism, partisanship or, and in my experience as a media analyst the usual motivation, the overriding need to simply fill time in broadcasts and space in publications both in print and on the internet. The unrelenting stream of this information creates an atmosphere that can have the end effect of despair for its audience, and as calamitous as this all has been, we should not lose sight of the essential hope in which we live.
Jesus never promised us a ‘rose garden’ existence, but one filled with challenges to our faith that would present us with the temptation to despair. For the disciples, the crucifixion of Jesus was a catastrophe; and they forgot its necessity. Jesus spends His time with the disciples walking to Emmaus carefully explaining this necessary sacrifice, so that by the time He breaks bread with them, they are restored to the hopefulness that they enjoyed as His followers before that fateful Passover.
As the First Letter of Peter today reminds us yet again, “Christ was destined before the foundation of the world…” (1 Peter 1) and so we are living in light of that fundamental reality. This is not to say that all is pre-ordained, that free will is a sham, that we are all locked into the current course of events like helpless passengers on some hellish rollercoaster ride. The true metaphor for us is that of the journey, and we walk this road in company, with each other, and with Christ our guide. The destination is fixed, the heavenly home built and ready for us from that same foundation of all that is. It’s not going anywhere, but hopefully we are!
It’s actually quite interesting that sight consistently is a human problem in the scriptures, and so God reaches us through speaking, through His word, through our listening. The disciples on the Emmaus road come to see Christ after listening to Him at length; Mary escapes the reality obscuring gloom of her sadness when Jesus speaks her name.
I often counsel people who are stressed, especially alarmed by current events to stop getting their news via broadcasts on television or the internet, wherein they sit passively as spokespeople, politicians, experts, commentators, one after the other, talk at the audience. I often cite an old study that I learned about as a teaching assistant to the department of Mass Communications at the Carleton School of Journalism: people who watched a lot of television tended to perceive the world as more violent, more dangerous, and so more threatening to them than those who got their news from newspapers and magazines, and read books for entertainment. Objective measures of crime statistics set against these perceptions showed that the “watchers” versus the “readers” had the exaggerated, distorted view. I don’t think that will have changed much just because the technology that delivers video and print is now digital and “high-def.”
So, read your news or have it read to you. Make a sampling from what is available in terms of sources, and the internet is quite good for getting different perspectives. Then, quietly and prayerfully sift it for what you can find in the way of useful information. Don’t expend hours on this; there are other important and better things to do for the sake of your morale, and your spiritual health. Read, write, paint, listen to good music, play some music, walk, run, and observe both the world and yourself as you do so. Also, read the scriptures and listen to Christ’s voice in every word, let Him speak your name, and then calmly explain it all to you.