Monday, May 4, 2020

Christ & COVID Art | Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus

"Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus" by Diego Velazquez, 1618 C.E.

Jesus' Kingdom is often the seed that grows unseen in muck and the mire. As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in 2020, the COVID-19 virus also goes unseen, yet is ruling our lives. What are we to do? Can we rest in a living hope that the light will break even into this unknown darkness?

"We had hoped ... " are the words uttered to Jesus on the road to Emmaus when He is unrecognized, questioned, doubted, and, in this moment, quiet (Luke 24:21). 

I'm sure there have been many moments that you and I have thought or said the same words in the silence as we wonder ... 

"I had hoped ... that I would still have my job."  
"I had hoped ... that my kids would be back at school by the end of the month." 
"I had hoped ... that I wouldn't have contracted the coronavirus." 
"I had hoped ... that I wouldn't be stuck at home with my abusive partner, angry spouse, or despairing roommate." 
"I had hoped ... that I would still have visitors be able to come see me to break up my time in jail." 
"I had hoped ... that the government would handle this differently." 
"I had hoped ... I could still be dancing on a pole instead of working a corner." 
"I had hoped ... that it would be fun to be at home with my parents, not so tense and sad."
"I had hoped ... that we would have been able to keep our house."
"I had hoped ... that we would have more toilet paper and cleaning supplies." 
"I had hoped ... that this family member I loved would have survived the disease."

All the hopes and disappointments above are thoughts from stories I know exist in our city of Worcester, Massachusetts today. 

As April comes to a close and Eastertide continues on, I'm thinking again about the many reasons that God gave us the name Emmaus City Church. One of the reasons is expressed in this post: How Our Name, Emmaus City Church, is Connected to the Meaning of Mass. Yet, we cannot join together for a mass or service of worship in person. So other reasons for such a name must become clear.

At the beginning of 2020, I had the joy to preach again on the Emmaus Road passage in Luke 24:13-49, attempting to seek to understand anew why and how Jesus wants us to embody our name this year: ECC 2020 Vision: The Road to Emmaus & Back

If I were given the opportunity to preach the text again during Eastertide 2020 in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I wonder what Good News Jesus would bring to this moment from this seemingly ancient history, yet still very relevant, and I think, a very much needed story we are invited to live in today.

When I consider these things, David Smith's Moving Towards Emmaus: Hope in a Time of Certainty comes to mind, a potent little book featuring reflections on this section of Scripture, paintings created in light of the Emmaus story, as well as powerful stories of people. The "Kitchen Maid" painting above captures in visual form the potency true stories Smith includes, including my favorite about Tatiana Goricheva. They are stories of people who encountered Jesus in surprising ways even in the midst of empires and pandemics which led to unforeseen and (to use a word we've heard a lot lately) unprecedented revelations. 

So today, I am staring again at Velasquez' "Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus" during this pandemic, knowing I need to hear Jesus' answer to the statement, "I had hoped ... " while also remembering the story of the painting itself that reveals there is light working to breakthrough even during the deepest darkness.

The Story Behind the "Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus" 

In 1618 C.E., the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez depicted the Emmaus meal in a painting called "Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus".  
Jesus and the disciples are portrayed in the top left corner. But the picture focuses all our attention on the maid. The astonished look on her face as she overhears their conversation suggests she's realized that a previously dead man has just eaten her food. The meal is hinted at, but it's all washed and tidied away. The central item is a piece of rag. The new world has collided with the old.   
Sometime after it was finished, the painting was altered by its new owner. The Emmaus scene was covered over entirely, and a few inches were cut from the left-hand margin (so that even in the restored version one of the disciples is missing). The original version was only rediscovered in 1933 A.D., when the painting was cleaned (see A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst). In the altered painting, the resurrected Christ had been edited out of the picture. The Bible story was painted over. Today we often remove the transcendent, the divine. But what we're left with then is merely the washing up. We're left with rags. But in our broken world at the sink with rags, Christ's resurrection is the promise of a new world. But we have not yet received our full resurrection and our world has not yet been renewed. We live between the cross and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 
For now Christ is incognito. Paul says: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4). The reign of Christ is how hidden. But one day it will be fully manifest. For now, though, we live as disciples of the cross. We embrace obscurity, hiddenness, weakness, marginality, and smallness.  
The kitchen maid in Velazquez's painting appears to be an African slave. The artist lived in a time when Spain was debating the status of slaves, and Velazquez emphasizes the maid's dignity by portraying her as listening intently to Christ's words. She may be unnoticed by the world around her, but she dominates the painting and therefore our attention. The last shall be first. This is God's way. His Kingdom grows unnoticed by the world. It's the seed that grows unseen.
+ Excerpt above about the story behind Velasquez' painting adapted from A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission Around the Table by Tim Chester, pgs. 129-130 

During this time in history when an unseen virus that spreads across the globe causes us to pause and perhaps miss Jesus in our scene, may His Kingdom continue to grow underneath the surface whether we believe it or not. But then, by God's grace and with His help, may we look again and see Jesus revealed, powerful and present, overcoming our doubts and fears in our homes and among our neighbors. And may we then see each other more and more like Jesus does, able to grow in faith, hope, and love, with intentionality to reach out and let others know He remembers them and so do we. And in the times we miss their presence with us while we're sheltering in place, we can learn how to humbly let them know we trust that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is near them in the crisis even when He goes unseen.  


Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Help us walk alongside each other on our Emmaus roads in Worcester during the pandemic not as victors, nor as people with all the answers, but as fellow human beings and fellow strugglers, waiting for the Christ to be revealed. 

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan 

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