Reflections for Easter, April 4, 2010 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
In 1999 I was a university chaplain, and our Sunday services were held in the afternoon. On Easter that meant reading the gospel story of the disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Our congregation had walked through all of Holy Week together, including a late Saturday night vigil at the cathedral. Some even attended Sunday morning services at local churches. But our communal Easter centered on this reading from Luke, of the two friends on the road and the mysterious stranger they meet.
In 1999, different wars were raging than the ones that rage now, so when you read this sermon, insert the conflict that preoccupies your conscience in place of the one I mentioned then. But profoundly, the date – April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King –is the same this year as then. Something not to be lost in the frenzy of last minute Easter preparations as we rush to Alleluia.
It is true! Jesus was raised from the dead, walks, talks, eats, drinks – it was too astounding for the disciples to believe.
Death is far more believable. Struggling and discontent are more frequently our companions than one who makes our hearts burn within us, one who opens our minds to truth and reason.
On Friday, when we walked the Way of the Cross on campus, I was struck with how life continued to swirl around us, life in all of its mundane, ordinary splendor. In the back of my mind all week, though, has been the war in the Balkans, the suffering of the Kosovars, the apparent futility of NATO’s heavy bombing.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life – and death – was a witness to the power of non-violence. Imagine this: NATO troops marching into Kosovo like the civil rights marchers did into Birmingham, into Selma, into the face of violence, hatred and for some death. What if they put their bodies between the Kosovars and those who hate them, as did the young Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, whose body stopped a bullet intended for a black woman trying to register to vote? It’s a foolish fantasy of mine. The power of those who hate and kill is too strong.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus lived in the same reality we live in, a reality marked by finitude and scarred by pain. Not enough good things happen to us for us to take on face value something spectacular that appears before our very eyes. We may feel it in our hearts, but our minds, world-weary and skeptical, can’t quite take it in. The currents of despair, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of day-to-day life, swirl around us.
Yet the astounding thing about this story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is that the appearance of the risen Lord is so ordinary. He walks and talks with them on a familiar road. He sits down and shares a meal. My favorite painting of this story is by the Italian artist, Caravaggio. It shows three men sitting around a simple table, a peasant’s table, with a meal of wine and bread and roast chicken in front of them. One of the men is obviously, to our eyes, Jesus. The other two men are brawny (probably Italian) peasants, with strong, working-men’s arms and rough hands and sturdy, no-nonsense faces. The painter catches them at the moment of recognition that this man sitting with them, talking with them, is Jesus. You can see the movement in the painting, the men catching their breath as they rise out of their chairs, their hands beginning to reach out to their beloved friend.
Jesus comes after his death as he came in his birth: in the humblest of circumstances to the simplest and poorest of people. No chariots of fire, no Roman legions converted en masse, no temple rulers falling at his feet. The astonishment of it is that this is how Jesus comes to us: in the middle of our ordinary lives, when we least expect it, in the simplest of settings. In a gesture of hospitality and welcome, Jesus is known to us in the breaking of the bread.
Our prayers in the Easter season rise to heaven, yearning that more people will hear the simplicity of this astounding fact: the death that seems to reign supreme in so many parts of this troubled world is vanquished. Put down your weapons. Join hands. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!