Monday, October 8, 2007

Jesus on the way to Emmaus

e. Pilgrim (Oil paint on wooden Panel, Chapel of Nav Jyoti Niketan, Patna 1976)

This is another view of the Emmaus road - a scene Jyoti obviously delights in. It had also fascinated an earlier Indian Christian artist, Angelo da Fonseca, who depicted the two disciple-pilgrims as a Hindu and a Muslim. In Jyoti’s painting three willowy figures, in animated discussion, journey barefoot along a road lined with tall trees. One carries a bag - presumably basic provisions for their journey. Barefoot pilgrims trudging towards their longed-for destination is a common enough sight in India.

Here, the whole scene suggests a strange otherness. Unusually elongated trees stretch from the three central figures up into the dark sky. The road they have taken (Jyoti was actually painting a road near to his home) winds back to a city on the far distant horizon. Along with a broken gate, the whole landscape has a broken, dislocated look. The ‘blocked’ nature of the scene suggests the travellers’ inner dislocation and brokenness. There is a suggestion of mountains and a surrounding pool – again typical of places of pilgrimage. The oval ‘stage’ on which they walk is as though there is a world within the world. Theirs had become a disjointed world, no longer making sense to them, yet there are all these signs of another world that would bring things together.

These two unnamed disciples had left Jerusalem – the place where their hopes of a new world had been crushed when their Master had been humiliated and crucified - and set off back to Emmaus. Only days before, their pilgrimage to Jerusalem had begun with such high hopes. Nearing the powerful sanctity of God’s Holy City they too had been gripped by the messianic fervour expressed by the pilgrims during the ‘triumphal entry’. But then had come the betrayal, the arrest, the mocking, the scourging, the cross-hanging. And then the rumours of a rising from death.

As we noted above, strangely the two unknown disciples did not recognise Jesus when he joined them on the road - though there had been bewildering rumours of his rising. In fact, this ambiguity was to become the pattern in encounters with the risen Jesus. The Jesus-story is far from an historically complete biography, leaving us with no questions concerning who this person actually was. The Apostle Paul, blindly falling to the ground, and asking: ‘Who are you, Lord’, is not atypical. As Albert Schweitzer concluded his extensive Quest for the Historical Jesus a hundred years ago: ‘He comes to us as One unknown....And to those who will obey him....He will reveal Himself in the toils and conflicts, the an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience Who He is’ (p.401)

At this time, though, as these two Jesus-followers returned to their own village and its secure familiarity, they were thoroughly confused. Disappointment and depression mixed with the excitement that something unexpectedly new may be happening. So they made their confused feelings known to a fellow-traveller who joined them on the road. Asking them why they were so depressed in spirit, their confusion spills out, and the ‘strange’ traveller explains the meaning of what has been happening.

We can see faint signs of the wounds of Jesus, and there is a faintly ethereal brightness in this central figure; otherwise he seems to be just a fellow-traveller. It was only when he ‘broke bread’ with them at Emmaus that ‘their eyes were opened’ and recognition dawned. (Jyoti has portrayed this bread-breaking scene in several pictures). Equally mysteriously – and typical of the resurrection visitations – the risen Christ disappears.

Making pilgrimage to a special place, but even more, being a constant pilgrim in life, is central to people of so many faiths. The Gospels (much of the Bible) are full of such journeying in a dislocated world – pilgrims who seek to move on from where they are, move on to some new life, new world. ‘We are travellers and pilgrims, seeking…..’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. Jesus himself was always on the move, travelling on from place to place: ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head’, Jesus said of himself. We too are in an ever-changing world that affords no final, secure resting place. So we find Christ to be a fellow-traveller with us, who breaks bread with us, and helps us discover the meaning of things.

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