Be Present, Be Present, O Jesus, Our Great High Priest – April 30, 2017
Let us pray.
Be present, be present, O Jesus our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread. Amen.
G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday explores the inner workings of a Central Anarchist Council, a body which consists of seven male representatives of the European anarchist community who meet to coordinate the implementation of the anarchist agenda. Each man on the council adopts a day of the week to be used as his name within the group, and the council is presided over by a large, imposing man referred to as Sunday, whom the rest of the council experiences as intimidating, scary and mysterious. The great twist in the novel is that every member of the council is actually a detective in a special police division that aims to root out anarchists, and Sunday, the President of the council, is the same man who, in a dark room, conscripted each detective into service. The detectives display tremendous ferocity, heroism and skill in their attempt to defeat the supposedly horrible anarchists, but their actions ultimately prove futile—because the goodness and serenity they seek to achieve through their efforts are in fact present with them from the very beginning. At the end of the novel, when the frustrated detectives confront Sunday with questions about who he is and what the whole circus they had underwent had been about, Sunday tells them, “I am the Sabbath. I am the Peace of God.”
Chesterton was a committed Christian, and this overt religious symbolism was no accident. Chesterton, I think, was trying to assert something about the power and permanence of the Divine. Chesterton was making a claim that, however absent God may seem and however unjust circumstances may appear to be, God is present and in control nonetheless.
This is also what the disciples discover on the road to Emmaus. They were once, not long ago, feverish followers of Jesus who believed he could do anything. But then Jesus died, and their hopes died with him. Even after women come to them to tell them of Jesus’ resurrection and even after Jesus himself explains to them the meaning of recent events, they still do not believe—at least not enough to see the Christ right in front of their eyes. The disciples’ grief over the loss of their Friend and Savior traps them from considering the possibility of his reappearance; they wallow so much in their pain that they lack the ability or the willingness to notice that he has returned. Yet through the anguish of Jesus’ death, through the despair the disciples feel in its aftermath, through the disciples’ doubt that Jesus can ever come back, Jesus persists in caring for and accompanying them. They may not see Jesus in the way to which they have become accustomed; they may not speak to him and touch him as they had before; but Jesus never abandons them; Jesus is present with them all along.
Towards the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, after the six detectives realize that none of them are authentic anarchists but before Sunday declares to them that he is the Peace of God, the detectives decide to track Sunday down and corner him on a balcony in London. There, for the first time, one of the detectives asks Sunday what he is. “I? What am I?” Sunday responds. “You want to know what I am, do you?…You will have found out the truth of the last tree and the top-most cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall be still a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf—kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.” Then Sunday, large and gargantuan though he may be, jumps nimbly over the balcony where he had just been reading his newspaper and leads the detectives on a chase through and out of the city until they all reunite at a grand mansion in the country where the detectives finally learn a little more of the truth.
The tricky part of the story of the Road to Emmaus is that, while Jesus may make himself known to the disciples and while the disciples may open their eyes to see him, Jesus does not let himself stay known for very long. Immediately after the disciples recognize him, Jesus vanishes, the triumphantly returned Savior gone and absent once again. The story seems to tell us that Jesus may walk with us and stay with us for a time, but in the end, like Sunday in Chesterton’s tale, Jesus refuses to submit to our attempts to capture and subdue him. Always making appearances yet never willing to be tied down, Jesus will forever elude us and run away from us just when we think we have discovered him and figured him all out.
On Thursday night, I attended a church meeting elsewhere that had nothing to do with St. Paul’s. I had been tasked with helping a group reflect on its vision for the Church in the next ten years, and, as is so often the case in these settings, as far as I could tell I was the only person in the room under the age of fifty. The group was supposed to share its hopes and dreams, but embedded in those hopes and dreams were a lot of complaints, many of them about “those young people” who have bad attitudes, who act improperly, who don’t give money, and who have the gumption to take their children to soccer practice or go to brunch instead of showing up at Church. I knew these folks weren’t complaining about me—I, after all, had intentionally bucked the trends, deciding to stay within the Church and dedicate myself to it—but it was hard not to take their comments personally. Many of “those young people” are my friends, my family members and my loved ones, and I understand why they are not always in the pews: they dislike the hypocritical and self-serving approaches of many religious congregations, they appreciate diversity in a world of many religious and non-religious spiritual perspectives, and they are pressed for time, with access to a plethora of opportunities to find community, serve others and engage in self-discovery, all of which are legitimately worthwhile and compete for their undivided attention. While I do have some anxiety about the future and the mission of the Church, all of these reasons resonate and make sense to me. The concerns frequently expressed about attendance and young people in the Church often sound to me less like genuine care for the welfare of those who are absent, and more like a yearning for an era of the Church and of our society that began to vanish decades ago. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Church keeps looking back to a Jesus already dead and buried, all the while oblivious to the Jesus who walks with us now.
The promise of the road to Emmaus is that, even though Jesus dies and vanishes, he continues to appear to and accompany us in fresh and exciting ways. However, when we insist on clinging to a vision of Jesus from the past and put all our energy into trying to conjure that Jesus up in the present, we block our eyes from seeing the Jesus who already abides with us in his new and revolutionary form. Encountering the Jesus we believe in does not require returning to times in which there weren’t any screens to distract us and no one locked their doors and Sunday School was non-negotiable. Encountering the Jesus we believe in instead requires daring to consider how Jesus might be alive and active right now in our secular, compromised, busy, fearful, heavily Instagrammed, politically polarized world, with all its foibles and all its joys. Jesus is not a reactionary who endeavors to take us back to the past; Jesus walks with us into a future that is entirely unknown but is still hopeful and full of potential.
The road to Emmaus shows us that the secret to following Jesus, for the Church as a whole and for us as individuals, is to let go of our memories of the past enough to greet the ever-changing Jesus who is ardently engaged in our lives in the present and who will be ardently engaged in our lives far into the future. The truth is that, whether we see him or not, Jesus is already here, walking alongside of us, teaching us the Scriptures and breaking bread among us. But to recognize him, we have to release ourselves, at least in part, from our grief over the defeats and losses we have suffered. We have to escape the past, reorient ourselves to the present, and ready ourselves for the adventure of the future. We have to change our perspective, open our eyes, and see.