April 15, 2018
Anita Valerio (now Max Wolf Valerio) wrote of their first experience in a sweat lodge at age 16: “[It] was so miraculous, so refreshing and so magical—it was as though God had appeared before me and walked about and danced.” (This Bridge Called My Back, 38)
“As though God had appeared before me and walked.” That is also what happens for our two travelers on the road to Emmaus, though they don’t recognize it right away. But we should be gentle, I think, with their lack of understanding, with their eyes that were kept from recognizing Jesus. They are, after all, on a dusty, ordinary road, not in a sacred ceremony.
Reading this week about Valerio’s experience of God in the sweat lodge and the travelers’ experience on the road got me thinking about other stories I have heard of God showing up; stories about Jesus appearing in the midst of life. There are, of course, several post-resurrection appearances in the Bible—stories of Jesus’ followers encountering the risen Christ in various circumstances: here, on the road to Emmaus; at the tomb with Mary Magdalene; on a mountain with the disciples; for breakfast on the seashore . . . even, later, to Paul on another road—this one leading into Damascus.
But post-resurrection appearances don’t stop at the conclusion of the biblical text.
In the 14th Century, an anchoress in Norwich who we now refer to as Julian, became extremely ill and saw 16 separate revelations of Jesus. These mystical encounters revealed to Julian that:
God is our Mother as truly as he is our Father; and he showed this in everything, and especially, in the sweet words where he says, ‘It is I,’ that is to say, ‘It is I: the power and goodness of fatherhood. It is I: the wisdom of motherhood. It is I: the light and grace which is all blessed love. It is I: the unity. I am the sovereign goodness of all manner of things. It is I that make you love. It is I that make you long. It is I: the eternal fulfillment of all true desires.
A post-resurrection appearance.
More recently, the author Reynolds Price recounted a vivid encounter with Jesus that he experienced in the wake of a surgery that had confirmed a diagnosis of inoperable spinal cancer. In a vision, Price encounters Jesus by the Sea of Galilee and follows him into the lake. Jesus poured handfuls of water over his head, running down the scar on Price’s back. Jesus tells him; “Your sins are forgiven.” Price asks: “Am I also cured?” . . . “That too,” says Jesus.
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells of encountering Jesus during a difficult time in her life. About a week after an abortion, she got very drunk and then discovered she was bleeding heavily. Too embarrassed to call anyone for help, she simply waited for the bleeding to stop and crawled into bed. She writes about sensing a presence in the room with her, and then realizing that the presence was Jesus.
I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this. And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.
Yet there Jesus was, with her in the room. And then everywhere she went she “had the feeling that a little cat was following [her], wanting [her] to reach down and pick it up, wanting [her] to open the door and let it in.”
The final Jesus encounter I want to share is actually from a short story, not a memoir. It is Alice Walker’s story “The Welcome Table.” And even though the encounter Walker writes about didn’t really happen, there is a deep truth to the experience of the old woman in the story.
This disheveled black woman wanders into a white church and sits shivering near the back. When she ignores people’s requests for her to leave, some of the church men literally throw her out of the church onto the front steps. Bewildered, the unnamed woman looks down the road and sees a figure coming toward her in the distance. When she realizes it is Jesus, Walker writes, “she start[s] to grin, toothlessly, with short giggles of joy, jumping about and slapping her hands on her knees.” Jesus invites the old woman to follow him, and the two walk down the road together, the old woman talking and singing and walking and walking until “the ground was like clouds under their feet.”
I am utterly fascinated by these types of mystical experiences. Maybe because I’ve never had one. I mean, I have felt God’s presence in ways that feel very real to me—but I’ve never had a true mystical experience of the physical presence of Jesus. I am a spiritual person, but no mystic. And, thankfully, I have not had the type of near death experience that seems to provoke such mystic visions.
These two travelers on the road to Emmaus (I’m not calling them men, because I like the theory that the unnamed traveler is a woman—thus the reason the writer of Luke didn’t bother to give her a name)–these travelers are, I think, more like me. Spiritual, but no mystics. They are sad. But they are not in a life-threatening crisis. No fatal fever. No spinal cancer. No hemorrhaging. No end-of-life dementia. They are at somewhat of a low point in their lives—mourning the death of Jesus and, with him, their dreams of Messianic salvation. But while the Jesus story seems dramatic to us, would-be Messiahs were a dime a dozen in the first century.
The two travelers are going about what is more or less their normal life. Walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Going home, perhaps. Getting their feet filthy, for sure. Moving their muscles and having a conversation. Just life. And Jesus shows up. But “their eyes [are] kept from recognizing him.” They have a long and fairly intense conversation, they arrive at their destination, they urge this stranger to stay with them for the night. They do not realize it is Jesus until he breaks the bread.
If there is a mystical component to this earthly story, this is where it happens:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. [Sound familiar?] Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
After this post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Jesus shows up in a room with the disciples and says “Peace be with you.” I guess you could say that move backfires, because the disciples are terrified and convinced they are seeing a ghost. To prove he’s not a ghost, Jesus invites them to touch his crucifixion wounds and then asks for a bite to eat.
I love these post-resurrection appearances—biblical, medieval, and modern. I love these stories about the ways Jesus shows up in our lives; how he shows up in the midst of our pain and our confusion—whether we want him there or not. The stories are great. But the point isn’t really about how Jesus shows up. The point is simply that Jesus shows up.
And we should recognize that the appearance of Jesus is only part of the story. Jesus is an important part of the story, to be sure. But the people to whom Jesus appears are also part of the story. It’s not just about Jesus showing up, but also about people responding to Jesus’ presence.
In the sweat lodge, Valerio writes of experiencing a “sense of the Marvelous and also a sense of sacredness.” Of weeping for a “collective wound”–”our past as Native people before being colonized and culturally liquidated.” She has a powerful response to the presence of the divine.
Julian of Norwich eventually recovered from her dire illness and wrote about her visions of Jesus in a book titled Revelations of Divine Love–the first book published in English known to have been written by a woman.
As Reynolds Price endured daily radiation, he would lay there and imagine Jesus pouring water over his wound. This encounter he had with Jesus at the lake encouraged him through years of pain, of treatments, of exhaustion. And it helped him cling to the hope—which indeed was true—that he would be cured of the spinal cancer.
Anne Lamott finally let the pesky cat-Jesus in and has become a beloved Christian writer and speaker.
And the woman from Alice Walker’s story came to experience a deep joy and peace in her life, despite her illness, poverty, and harsh treatment.
The twelve disciples are sent out to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins to the nations.”
And the two travelers on the road to Emmaus . . . did you catch how they respond to their encounter with Jesus? They have just walked seven miles from Jerusalem. They have stopped for the night because it is getting dark. We all know that feeling of arriving after a long journey. Relaxing, eating a bite, settling in for the evening. But once the travelers recognize Jesus, they go back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what has happened.
Earlier in the story, when Jesus asks them what they are talking about, the text says, “They stood still, looking sad.” This sentence really strikes me. They are so sad, so discouraged, that they can’t even move. They just stand there. But now, after encountering Jesus on the road and recognizing him in the meal, their energy is restored. Their hope is restored. They make the seven mile trip again, in the growing darkness, to share their experience with others.
The Good News of Easter continues. Jesus appears in our world in so very many ways. May we have ears to hear and eyes to see—and hearts to live these stories–stories of Christ’s presence, and of our grace-filled, joy-laden responses.