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Picturing a Vanishing (Luke 24:28-31)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century,April 18, 1990, p. 395, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. When Jesus was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Luke’s account of the encounter of the risen Christ with two disciples on the road to Emmaus witnesses to the strange juxtaposition of hiddenness and discovery evoked by Christ’s resurrection. Knowing that Jesus had been crucified, the two disciples were utterly unprepared to see him alive. More important, the resurrected Christ was the only new creation since the first creation. What they confronted was not a revivification of the man they had known, but rather one knowable only by a miracle of divine self-disclosure.

This scenario creates an undeniably aesthetic aura and is a favorite subject for Christian artists. Rembrandt, for example, painted several times that instant when the disciples’ eyes were opened. The very young Rembrandt was drawn to the melodrama of the baroque, using dramatic lighting effects to re-create the event. As Rembrandt matured, his highly charged interpretation of the story gave way to a very different sense of awe, a deeper, radically personal awakening, a subtle awareness reflected in the eye of one of the disciples. At the very instant of the disciple’s recognition a servant offers a plate and appears to see nothing at all remarkable.

Rembrandt’s maturation serves as a parable of our own posture toward such biblical accounts. For most of us every act of God, every revelatory experience, comes in the form of worldly occurrences that can be read in naturalistic terms. We realize that our most profound spiritual convictions can be interpreted as intense psychological states. Faith knows that there is infinitely more to existence and the reality of God than our fleshly eyes can perceive, but faith -- a living by what cannot be seen -- is the only way to know this. We are dismayed by interpretations of biblical narratives -- like Cecil B. DeMille’s epics -- that focus on their special-effects potential, such as Jesus’ disappearing like some movie ghost.

Christian artist George Rouault painted several landscapes depicting Christ walking between two disciples, pictures that evoke the Emmaus account. Bold patches of luminescent colors with subtones give the radiant appearance of stained glass or a flaming coal. The miraculous landscapes are more abstract than realistic. Such a posture toward reality reflects the way many moderns understand scriptural events. We know something of decisive import happened in Judea when Pilate was procurator, but we are never in a position to produce anything like a videotape. Where does fact end and legend begin? Reading the Bible entails a creative openness -- it’s more like being an artist than cataloging a coroner’s findings.

If we are not content with such uncertainty and try to take control of Christ by our historical-critical method or our theological formulations, he eludes our grasp. We are so shaped by modern skepticism that we may even be tempted to doubt the certainty of our own experience of Christ when he cannot be produced on command in a narrowly positivistic or rationalistic manner.

Yet a vanishing not unlike Christ’s vanishing is characteristic of all human relations. We have all experienced moments of intimacy with friends or lovers in which remarkable bonds of sympathy and mutuality emerge. The Other is present to us in astonishing immediacy and openness so that there seems to be a commingling of beings in the bonds of affection. Yet that Other, who becomes almost as real to one as one s own self, does not and cannot stay. Moods change. One gets bored. Trivia becomes important. The Thou becomes an It. The moment never lasts. One cannot recapture on command those moments of self-disclosure and relationship when another self was almost indistinguishable from one’s own self.

Human love, which gives existence its viability and purpose -- both our love of God and our love of neighbor -- is spontaneous, fragile and fleeting. Like the heavenly manna of the Exodus, love cannot be preserved and stored. We cannot manage it. We can only hope that it will be there for us when we most need it. These ought not to be melancholy thoughts, any more than the two disciples should have lamented the vanishing of the risen Christ. We know that Christ’s vanishing and the vanishing of every human moment and the self we are at every moment serve to underscore the utter preciousness of life. This simply makes more glorious the mystery that this precious life which we presently experience as so poignantly fragile is, like the God who gives it, eternal.


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