In the Background

In the Background

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

April 23, 2023

In the Background

Homily for Sunday, April 23
The Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24:13–35

I had seen in books Diego Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (shown in today’s order of service), and I had assumed that it, along with so many of Velázquez’s works, was at a major museum like the Prado or the Met.  And so I was surprised this past winter when wandering through the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, there to find Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus.

About this painting, two things stand out for me.  First, had the title not included “Supper at Emmaus,” I might not have known the scene was the Supper at Emmaus, for front and center is neither Jesus nor the supper nor the disciples, but a maid and a table of dishware.  Jesus is there, in the next room, seen through a window, barely in the picture, identifiable only because of his muted halo.  Indeed for years, before the painting was cleaned in the 1930’s, nobody could see that Jesus was there, as that corner was entirely darkened.  But Jesus is there, even though Velázquez’s focus is on the maid, on her look of surprise and recognition when she realizes that it is Jesus who has arrived at her home.  Jesus is there, even though Velázquez’s focus is on the maid and on the table of dishware.

Which is the second thing that stands out for me.  Notice how for every piece of dishware that is stable and right-side up there is one that is unstable or upside-down. The bowl at the left, for example, in front of the white pitcher (which is right-side up) is not flat on the table but leaning to its side.  And (from left to right) notice the cloth left rumpled, as if she had just dropped it from her hand; but her arm is sleeved in a tidy and proper white lace.  In front of the pitcher she is holding (which is right-side up) there is another pitcher, upside-down.  And to the right of that, between it and the mortar and pestle (which are right-side up), is a stack of bowls and plates upside-down.  This table—this “world” of the kitchen maid—is at once familiar yet startled, stable yet topsy-turvy.

In this painting Velázquez conveys something of what it can be like when Jesus enters our lives.  As he is in this painting, Jesus does not clamor to be on our “stage,” as it were—he will not seize our attention; rather, Jesus prefers to work in our “back room,” in our shadows, perhaps patiently remaining hidden there for years until—maybe as the result of some “cleaning”—we notice he is even there.  And then, when we discover him present—perhaps a time of crisis or of great need opens our eyes—like the stable and topsy-turvy kitchen ware in the painting Jesus both brings stability and turns our lives upside down.  Jesus brings stability because whenever we allow Jesus more closely into our lives we are grounded in and become more fully the persons God made us to be.  And Jesus entering our lives might feel topsy-turvy because living so closely to Jesus, allowing him so intimately to love us, is a daring and perhaps different way from how we have been living.

Not only is there a painting of this scene at Emmaus, but there is a poem about this painting. I will leave you with “The Servant Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez),” in which the poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997) reimagines the moment when the servant girl recognizes Jesus—a moment Jesus well may be waiting to have with each of us:

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his—the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he'd laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face—?
The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the wine jug she's to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

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