At All Hallows Church in Wyncote, there is a great, thee-paneled stained-glass window build into the wall above the altar. The scene is curious. The risen Jesus stands behind a table, facing the viewer, holding bread in his left hand and blessing a cup of wine with his right. Two other figures inhabit the window: followers of Jesus, one at his right hand, the other at his left.
What is curious is not Jesus or the other figures, but the backdrop of the piece. The figures are not standing in a house in first century Palestine, but in the altar space of an Episcopal church, in the very place at which worshipers kneel to receive the Eucharist. It is a room within a room, an altar both beyond and within the our space. Jesus’ face is turned not to the followers beside him, but out into the nave toward the congregation.
This is the gaze that meets mine each Sunday morning as I kneel at the railing to take communion. We receive the Eucharist at the hand of our priest, but it is Jesus who feeds us with his own Body and Blood. Jesus is here, breaking the bread and giving it to the hungry. This feast of remembrance is not of a Lord who is far away, but one whose advent is nigh (even as he is already present).
I realized today that the stained-glass scene depicts the Supper at Emmaus, a story found in Luke 24. Many often think of communion in connection with 1 Corinthians 11, and rightly so, since Paul discusses what is known as the Last Supper which Jesus had before his death, at which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (communion). But there are details of this post-resurrection story of the Supper at Emmaus which reveal that it is also a kind of Eucharistic narrative which can deepen our own understanding of this meal Jesus gave us.
The scene is a road stretching towards Emmaus (about seven miles from Jerusalem). Cleopas and another follower of Jesus, on their way to Emmaus, are discussing the befuddling, disheartening events of the last few days: the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (the prophet of God whom they hoped would redeem Israel) and now the inexplicable reports from the women who had visited Jesus’ tomb. As the two discuss, Jesus draws near and asks them what they are discussing. The narrator tells us that they were unable to recognize Jesus even as he walked with them: “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk. 24:16). The motif of ‘sight’ in this passage is striking. Cleopas and his companion relate the claims of the women at the tomb: that they did not find Jesus’ body, but saw a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see” (Lk. 24:24).
Jesus responds by rebuking them for their unbelief, saying, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, the narrator tells us, Jesus interprets to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself, beginning with Moses and the Prophets.
And still, they do not recognize Jesus.
It is not until later that evening, when he shares a meal with them that they begin to see who Jesus is:
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Their eyes are veiled until the breaking of the bread. The language in v. 31 evokes the memory of a distant Garden in which the first humans ate in order that their eyes would be opened – but, contrary to the words of the serpent, this eating did not make Adam and Eve ‘like God.’ Their eyes were henceforth clouded with unbelief which kept them from recognizing the face of their Maker. So too Israel participates in in their blindness and unbelief. So too humankind participates in the unbelief of Israel.
Yet into that unbelief enters the suffering, righteous messiah, the one who redeems Israel. The travelers to Emmaus recognize him in the eating: their eyes are opened, they recognize him, and he vanishes from their sight. They gather with the other Jesus-followers and share the stories of resurrection and how Jesus was revealed to them.
When we come together to celebrate communion, we are the travelers on the road to Emmaus: befuddled and disheartened, feeling that our hoped-for messiah has failed us. Our vision is dull and we distrust the words of our Maker, thinking that he has deceived us and withheld from us our heart’s desire.
Even so, he gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to us. Our eyes are opened, we meet his gaze, and he vanishes from our eyes.