“The Supper at Emmaus” Rembrandt 1654. Public Domain.
The Half-way House Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Love I was shewn upon the mountain-side And bid to catch Him ere the drop of day. See, Love, I creep and Thou on wings dost ride: Love it is evening now and Thou away; Love, it grows darker here and Thou art above; Love, come down to me if Thy name be Love.
My national old Egyptian reed gave way; I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood. Then next I hungered: Love when here, they say, Or once or never took love’s proper food; But I must yield the chase, or rest and eat. – Peace and food cheered me where four rough ways meet.
Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given, To see Thee I must [see] Thee, to love, love; I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven If I shall overtake Thee at last above. You have your wish; enter these walls, one said: He is with you in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve been missing people a lot this week. I’ve noticed this as I lingered on a video call with my family in Ohio, never quite ready to hang up. I’ve been on the phone a lot with folks from our church and other churches this week. I even reconnected with a childhood friend, one that I hadn’t spoken with for a few years, having two long conversations on consecutive days. And I’ve missed the kids and parents in our youth programs and our times together.
One of the things I miss about the youth program at the United Church of Hinesburg is the epic meals we make together whenever we are in session. An old adage of youth programming is that if you feed them, they will come. I’ve found that if we make the food together, we also have better conversations, and young people, who can sometimes be picky eaters, are more willing to extend their pallets. On Sunday evenings, the parish hall is filled with talking, chopping, movement, and wonderful smells like sautéing garlic, citrus, and ginger. Our meals are gluten-free and vegetarian friendly, which has made us creative in our menus. We’ve worked together to make homemade hummus, cardamom cookies, fragrant Israeli rice, falafel, and stuffed squash and had fun while doing so.
In the book “The Omnivorous Mind,” author John S. Allen describes how the smell and taste of food is such an effective trigger for memories. The hippocampus is a region in our brain that has evolved to be vital for holding memories, specifically autobiographical and spatial memories. But the hippocampus is multifaceted. It also has strong connections to parts of our brain that process emotions and smells, and has direct access to our digestive system, containing receptors that regulate appetite and eating behavior. Finding food was such an essential task for our hunter-gatherer ancestors that their brains developed to associate food reward with specific game trails, types of plants and berries, times of the year, and feelings of safety and contentment, or scarcity and sickness.
I’ve noticed that during these last five weeks, while we are at home during the pandemic, I am making meals that take me back to childhood. Cheeseburgers and French fries, Pot Roast, and Chicken and Rice have been everyday dinners. We’ve also had Bazooka gum in our house, the gum I would get after swimming lessons during the summer when I was in elementary school. Likely, during this time of stress and uncertainty, I am reaching for memories of childhood, when things were a little less complicated, and thoughts of a global pandemic were nonexistent.
Our gospel story is one of the more famous ones, often called the “Walk to Emmaus.” It could just as easily be called the “Meal in Emmaus.” In our lesson, Jesus joins two people, likely two of his followers, as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. The three talk about the previous weekend, the festival of Passover, the uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, the crucifixion, and rumors of his resurrection. Jesus goes about explaining the meaning of these events, all the while going unrecognized by his traveling companions. As they near the village, the two invite Jesus for dinner. When they sit down together, Jesus grabs the bread, blesses it, and breaks it, and immediately the two recognize him.
It’s interesting that this story tells us something about Jesus, but also gives us insight into our shared humanity. Perhaps it’s hard to recognize certain truths in life unless they are experienced. Jesus takes several hours to explain the history, theology, and meaning of what had just transpired in Jerusalem. And still, his companions fail to recognize him. We’ve all sat through classes, speeches, and sermons, that I’m sure were written and performed with great inspiration and insight. Maybe these expositions even answered some of life’s biggest questions thoughtfully and succinctly, but we left the classroom, the rally or the church none the wiser.
But then, at a meal, Jesus picked up a loaf of bread, and he prayed, thanking God for the provision. And he broke it and gave it to his companions. And I can imagine that they held the broken bread and could smell it and when they took that first bite, memories and emotions returned.
Perhaps these travelers were at the Last Supper in the upper room a few days ago. Or maybe they were present at one of the miraculous feeding events in Jesus' ministry. Perhaps they had shared a meal with him previously when he had done the same, simple movements: he picked up the bread, offer a short prayer of thanksgiving, and passed it around. They remembered who this person was, how he made them feel, and what all of this could mean.
We are living in a time when the basics of life are appreciated differently. Some of us are going on walks every day to stay moving and get a change of scenery. Perhaps we see things we’ve never noticed or feel the ground under our feet in some new way. Many of us are cooking more, some even finding proficiency in the kitchen or realizing that cooking can be enjoyable. Maybe the smells and tastes bring back memories, or we know that memories of this strange time will be triggered by the food we are eating now.
Talking is a little different these days too. We are using the phone more, connecting with people in different ways. Early in the pandemic, some folks in our church took on the big task of calling or connecting with everyone in our contact database. The feedback has been interesting. Some have noticed that they’ve gotten to know fellow parishioners better as a result of this exercise. For some, these phone conversations have gone much deeper than the cordial small talk often associated with coffee hour or even small groups. People have been invited into the lives of others and have felt a desire to share life with others. In a new way, something wonderful is being revealed.
Even now, during a pandemic, something beautiful is being revealed. Even now, we are experiencing truths that are changing our lives and our communities forever. The unfolding of God’s divine light and call for renewal is happening even today, in our homes, in the breaking of bread, over the phone, and in the early signs of spring.
May our eyes be opened so we can bear witness to what God is doing today. Amen.