The Vanishing Christ
by Paul Hooker
Here is one of my favorite poems, written by Emily Dickinson, 19th century master of understatement and Yankee reserve:
After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes (J341, F372)
After great pain a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And Yesterday–or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow–
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
Every time I read it, I find myself in the parlor—what we used to call the “sitting room”—of a house where there’s been a death. It’s after the funeral, and the relatives and guests have gathered for sliced ham on dinner rolls and muffled conversation not quite out of earshot of the grieving widow. We’re careful not to laugh, or cry, or express any strong emotion; we pat each other’s shoulders and offer platitudinous comforts like “if there’s anything I can do…” We sit bolt upright in straight-backed chairs, our nerves “ceremonious, like Tombs.” It is indeed “the Hour of Lead,” and our “stiff Hearts”—dull, heavy, and lifeless—are slowly freezing to death.
That, in my fantasy, is what it’s like between these two disciples on the Emmaus Road.
You know the story. The ragged little band of followers has accompanied its Lord all the way through their final meal and fled during the garden arrest. They’ve stood ‘round the edges as their leader was tried, then crucified, and at last taken lifeless from the executioner’s cross and sealed in a tomb. Funeral done, they are gathered in a safe place, away from the prying public eye, where they can begin to heal the deep wounds inflicted by the death of a dream. Some of the women in their group have returned from their work to spice and wrap the corpse with the crazy news that he is risen, but it’s all a bit too much—just an idle tale that can’t be trusted and only prolongs the agony of grief. That’s the problem with hope: it won’t die easily, even when it has no chance of being realized. Instead it keeps rising and falling, a series of little deaths over and over again. Better to cut the cord, face the fact that sooner or later faith freezes to death in the cold night of reality. The Hour of Lead.
I think that’s what these two were doing. They broke out of grief’s prison without any real hope of living through the escape. As they walked, they were conducting a post-mortem review—how did we not see, where did we go wrong?—when they are joined by another. “Jesus himself came near and went with them,” confides the text, letting us in on the secret the two themselves can’t see. “There eyes were kept from recognizing him,” Luke deadpans in that odd little passive voice that hints that more is afoot than is readily apparent. As if he didn’t know, as if he hadn’t live through the whole affair, Jesus asks what so occupies their attention. So they tell him, perhaps hoping to exorcise the demons that whispered in their ears that their faith had been fruitless and their visions in vain. When they finish, Jesus points out how, if they’d been better students of Scripture, they might have seen this whole thing coming. First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—.
Seven miles down the way Dickinson calls “the Wooden way/ of Ground or Air or Ought,” the three come to Emmaus, and after some negotiation agree on a meal and a night’s lodging. Gathered at table, Jesus “took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them.” And in that sacramental moment, in the middle the liturgy that will mark the occasion of recognition for millennia yet to come, “their eyes were opened…” Yes, there it is again, that curious passive voice. As if to suggest that there is something that must come from beyond us if blindness is to be changed to sight, despair to joy, fractured hopes to full realization, death to life. Suddenly, Luke suggests, the worst of days becomes the best of days, and the Hour of Lead is ended.
And just as suddenly, he is gone. They recognize him…ah, but the sentence isn’t done: “…and he vanished from their sight.” The disciples look at one another and wonder aloud: “Didn’t our hearts burn within us?” And that holy, hope-kindled heartburn is as sure a sign as any that this funeral parlor isn’t the end of the road, that the story they thought was over had barely even begun. There is only one thing to do: go back to Jerusalem, back to the world of broken promises and dented dreams, and tell the tale: that he was alive, that they had seen him…
… And he vanished from their sight. I never quite get over that phrase. I expect the disciples to do what Martha does when she meets Jesus outside Lazarus’ tomb, or what Mary does when she meets Jesus in the garden: grab Jesus’s feet and hold on for the dear life that beats again beneath his skin and pulses in his veins. But they don’t. Instead they sit there, eyes open, mouths agape, while the object of their hopes and dreams dematerializes before them. Having reclaimed him from death, they lose him to oblivion.
Whenever I get that tingly sense that there is more here than meets the eye, I know there is a metaphor lurking somewhere nearby. And here it is: the metaphor of the Vanishing Christ. Here we sit, two weeks downrange from the Resurrection, but we are still not sure we can trust the news. Something in us is readier to believe the suffering and death we can see than the life and hope we can’t. Maybe it’s because we’ve had a few too many dreams of the way things might be come to grief on the hard rocks of the way things are. Maybe it’s because we live in a world that knows all too well the pathways among the tombs. Whatever the reason, Easter is always coming when we least expect it. While we were filing our income tax, Christ rose. While we were arguing over relationships with the Russians, Christ broke the bonds of the grave. While we were freezing to death in partisan political posturing, the stiff Heart began to beat again, and we dared believe we might not freeze to death after all.
But—and here’s the hard part—just when we think we might trust the news that he is risen, just when we are prepared to risk believing again, he vanishes from our sight. The truth about Easter is that we can’t hold him here, however much we need him. He is always disappearing on us, leaving us with that burning in our hearts that is as sure a sign as any that there is more of the tale to tell. He is always leaving us with no other alternative than to get up and go back to the world, snow-bound and freezing to death, with the news that morning has dawned on a new day, and the temperature is rising.
The vanishing Christ is apt to meet us on the roads to wherever we are going, and like as not we won’t recognize him. The key to the life of faith is to trust in his presence even when we can’t see it. Once, a long time ago, I saw a photograph of a portrait of Christ painted on a roll-up garage door on a back street in New York City. He is enormous; his head and outstretched arms hover over the city skyline, and the light of heaven falls from his shoulders like shafts of blessing on the streets below. For much of the day, though, the portrait is invisible, rolled up into the ceiling while the shop or garage or warehouse is open for business, Christ coiled up and out of sight. But knowing that the portrait is there, you cannot help thinking that those who walk in and out of that door all day long walk beneath the shade of Christ’s blessing. Christ hovers over our reality, unseen and unrecognized perhaps, but not unreal.
The vanishing Christ reminds us that the story isn’t over yet. The high drama of the Triduum may be past, the strains of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” may have echoed for the last time among the rafters, and the scent of Easter lilies may have at last wafted out the air conditioner vents, but the story goes on. That odd little burning in your chest you feel whenever the Easter tale is told isn’t acid reflux. It’s burnt-out hope rekindling, catching fire again, and sooner or later that hope will burn down everything that would prevent things as they are from becoming things as God will have them to be. You can’t sit still when you know that. You have to get up from the funeral parlor, shake off the cold in your bones, and get back to a world still up to its old tricks because it doesn’t yet know the world has changed and the old tricks won’t work anymore. You have to tell the story, if for no other reason that it’s too good to keep to yourself.
And on the way, have confidence that there are certain places where the vanishing Christ will meet us, and that all we need do is to look with the eyes of faith. We call these places “church” or “baptismal font” or “communion table,” and we can count on the fact that when disciples gather around them—to tell the story over again, to sing and pray, to baptize, to break bread and share cup—Christ will be there. Our common life of faith is brimful to overflowing with sacramental possibilities. Here, the vanishing Christ vanishes no more.
Here’s a poem by my friend Dana Hughes, who knows something about the sacramental possibilities of looking for the vanishing Christ in the places you would least expect to find him. It’s entitled, “An Idle Tale”:
An Idle Tale
Watching a skink skitter off the porch
where its night-slowed blood was licked
to life by hot tongues of morning sun,
so that at the sound of my toes in the grass
he shot into the shadows, forsaking his tail–
that living sliver of lapis left with necessary
detachment like the too-heavy child on the
refugee road or an offering to a hungry god,
I wondered aloud to the abandoned tail
how long it planned to wiggle
and did it think that I thought that it was all?
Right about then, my thoughts twitched back
to Peter, sitting cold with the thick-blooded
ten in a shuttered room when Mary came
running with a tale they called idle,
lacking the curiosity to come close and see
the quivering piece of truth she carried,
while back in the garden where the sun shone
on a heaved over stone, the part without the tale,
warmed and quickened, and moved on.
It ends, my friends, this Hour of Lead. It ends, and warmed and quickened, we move on. So it is, and so may it ever be.