At the Festal Choral Evensong on Easter Day, Canon Jenny’s sermon focussed on Caravaggio’s painting ‘Supper at Emmaus’.

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In 1606, the painter Caraveggio, portrayed the supper that we heard read about from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Caraveggio portrayed this supper in a painting entitled Supper at Emmaus. A copy of this painting may be found in our orders of service.

Before the supper, though, there was a walk. It happened on the same day as the other resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel. Two disciples are going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that have happened. Talking about Jesus’ death, talking about the fact that some women of their group were at Jesus’ tomb early that morning, and not finding his body there, talking about the fact that these women had come back, telling them that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive.

The walk taken by these two disciples, Cleopas and his friend, was away from Jerusalem and towards Emmaus, probably a centre of Roman power. Away from the truth of Jesus, back to the truth of life under Roman oppression. Away from life and hope and back to resignation that things are as they had always been. Jesus isn’t interested in the walk back to oppression and resignation. And, so, he joins the two disciples on their walk. They do not recognise him. Each resurrection encounter has Jesus appearing in the midst of doubt, fear, guilt, hope abandoned. Each resurrection encounter is mysterious and at the start those encountered do not know that it is him.

Whilst the two disciples are talking, Jesus himself comes near to them and walks with them. He asks them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ Cleopas, answers him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asks them, ‘What things?’ The irony is extraordinary. Jesus is the only one who knows in their fullness about these things.

The disciples speak with Jesus about the death and the mysterious accounts of the rising and then Jesus speaks with them. We might think of this encounter as almost the first example of lectio divina in the gospels. Of the holy reading that takes place when scripture is placed alongside the events of our lives. Jesus places alongside the story of the life of those with whom he walks, the stories of faith – shedding light on the events through the lens of the living word of God. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ He says to them. And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. It is only later that the disciples reflect, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

Jesus, who they still do not recognise, is about to leave them when they arrive at the village where they are to stay. But the disciples urge him, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ Jesus does this with us too. He encounters us in scripture, music, perhaps, art, the words of one another, and then he looks to leave. It is as if the encounter is to come to a close.  We sense that we want God’s presence to stay with us. Somehow it matters that we ask … that we ask him to stay. We have glimpsed something. We may not be sure what. And we reach out for more presence, for more of his presence.

And, so, there is the meal … the supper at Emmaus. While he is at the table with them disciples, he takes bread, blesses and brakes it, and gives it to them. Let us reflect on this supper through the eyes of the painter Caraveggio, the painting that is in our orders of service. There are four people in the painting, present around the table where the meal is set. The two disciples, Jesus and the cook.

John Drury, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, reflects on paintings in the National Gallery, London, in his book Painting the Word. He writes this about the Supper at Emmaus.

“Light floods into Caraveggio’s painting from the invisible high windows on the left. As it descends into the gloomy room, it lights up four men, a table laid for a good supper with a white cloth over an expensive eastern rug, and a chair. It casts the shadow of the standing cook onto the back wall behind Jesus, so that Jesus leans forward out of its gloom and into the light with manifest clarity. With his raised hand, magnet to all eyes, he blesses the bread.”[1]

John Drury continues commenting on the dramatic response from the two disciples when Jesus’ actions with the bread resonates with their memory of his final supper with them. Firstly, John Drury draws attention to the basket of fruit at the front of the painting:

“The wonderful basket of fruit attracts us in a forcefully practical way … It is about to topple off the table and any person with ordinary domestic instinct wants to rush forward to steady it. … The man on the left pushes his chair back at us with involuntary force. The man on the right throws his arms aside with such abandoned amazement that his left arm seems to break through the bounds of the picture space and come out into the air between him and us. These effects are irresistible … and seem to put us in the path of the oncoming vehicle of Christ’s action; but they have a serious function [also]: The pushed chair and the wide gesture are conductors of revelation. They carry Christ’s self-revelatory gesture out into the spectator’s world as urgently as the poised basket of fruit invites every spectator into the company within.”[2]

Gazing at, pondering Caraveggio’s painting we are captured by the drama. By the power of the response of the disciples. Something has happened. They have been powerfully affected by the stranger’s actions with the bread. Their minds are flooded with the memory of their final supper with Jesus. And there is sudden clarity that the stranger is him.

And then there is the cook. He has not known Jesus. But as John Drury says “not having been at the previous supper with Christ … he cannot understand Christ’s tell-tale gestures over the loaf.  But sensing the excitement, he looks at Christ’s face with questioning attention.”[3]

Who do we relate to in the painting? This Easter Sunday night, we may have journeyed through Holy Week, through Jesus’ Passion and death, we may have journeyed as we have done for many years, we may have witnessed these things only once or twice. We may be a stranger to it all, and are gazing like the cook our faces with “questioning attention.” Or like the disciples we may have heard in word or music, in silence or in the busyness of all our liturgies, something that rings a bell, that brings to mind a memory, a memory of God’s encounter with us in bread and wine, in gentle prayer, in a walk by the sea, in prayers with those gathered in our cathedral. Like the disciples we might have found a memory has come to mind, that has us push back our chairs or throw wide our arms, or have tears roll down our cheeks because we too know, if in a whisper, that profound truth, that he lives, Jesus lives, Christ is risen.

[1] John Drury Painting the Word, p122.

[2] Ibid., p127-8.

[3] Ibid., p128.