The Supper at Emmaus, Ceri Richards, St Edmund’s Chapel, Oxford
One of the Gospel readings for Easter Sunday recalled the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33). They were devastated and disheartened, maybe even depressed, after the crucifixion of their Lord and hoped-for-redeemer. Their dearest expectations had not come to pass. So they had turned their backs. They were walking away. Understandably. Then the risen Jesus joins their company, but they do not recognise him. This seems very strange indeed, for they had kept his company until only a few days past. And it flies in the face of the common experience of people longing to see (and oft-times mistakenly seeing) the face in the crowd of one they have recently lost.
A conversation begins which is a classic model of pastoral care and catechesis. “What is troubling you?” “Where are you now?” “What’s going on in your life?” The mode of the listener. The starting point, really, for all good teaching and parenting. Only then are the two lost disciples ready for a response and for enlightenment. As the story unfolds, they want this mysterious companion to stay, so they invite him to join their meal. And, as the scriptures tell us, when he begins to bless the meal, “they recognise him at the breaking of the bread”. But then he vanishes from their sight.
When St Edmund’s College was incorporated fully into the University of Oxford in 1958, the Junior Common Room commissioned a painting for the Chapel to commemorate the occasion. The artist was an accomplished Welsh painter, Ceri Richards, who chose The Supper at Emmaus as his theme. Christ is seen seated against a yellow cross which also forms part of the table. And that is rather appropriate, for in John’s Gospel we read that the lambs for the Passover meal were slaughtered in the Temple at the very same time Jesus was crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem. Table and cross are one. The Eucharist is essentially a meal that commemorates the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.
Jesus is portrayed in a yellow garment which allows him to melt into the background. It seems like the light of eternity in which he is momentarily figured in human face and human form. The meal and the cross will be the symbols he leaves as he soon disappears from their sight.
And what of those two disciples at table? Perhaps they represent us on our particular roads. In the ebb and flow of our faith, God seems to come and go. At one time we have hold of God, then God seems to slip from our grasp like water in cupped hands. In Richards’ image, those disciples react to this manifestation of Christ in two ways. One seems to be pushing back his chair, on the point of departure. Perhaps he is ready for mission. The other is more uncomprehending, more discerning, slower to act. Are the clasped hands, pressed to the mouth, a gesture of prayer, or sucking in the air, the way we sometimes do in thoughtful decision? The reactive one and the reflective one. Perhaps these are two allegories for the way we can perceive Christ’s presence in our lives today: sometimes with dramatic and instant perception and sometimes after deep and prayerful consideration. Are these two ‘twin-depictors’ of those in the Ignatian tradition of being ‘contemplatives in action’?
Most people who look upon and contemplate this work are drawn to the hands and feet of all three persons. By any standards they are large – accentuated more so by the narrow wrists and ankles. So what is the artist suggesting? Jesus’ hands are in the traditional pose of God found in an icon, imparting a blessing. The left hand, with pinched finger and thumb, recalls the gesture of a priest in the time of the Latin Mass after he had touched a consecrated host. This then is Jesus in his unambiguous divinity nourishing, blessing and commissioning his disciples. The two disciples, in turn, are sketched for their mission. These are the feet that walked this journey, the hands that received nourishment from their Lord. Now they are hands and feet to spread the Word, to build the Kingdom. And, as a result of this and many other Eucharistic meals, they become the hands and feet of Christ’s mystical body. As St Teresa of Avila once summed up the theology so well:
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
And this is our Easter story.