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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Emmaus and a Winter's Tale

It’s the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Not long ago we went to see The Winter’s Tale. It’s a late drama, hard to classify. It starts out as a tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. The drama shows a man eaten up by self-absorption and jealousy, his rapid disintegration bringing about the collapse of a whole family with the deaths of his wife and his young son. But then comedy breaks in. The famous stage direction exit, pursued by a bear introduces a note of parody as if nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and dancing; all is set for a happy ending, though we can’t guess how Shakespeare will get there. Well, he uses a device that puzzles critics because it seems to resort to trickery. Paulina brings a statue of lost Hermione back to life. It’s a tease: we don’t know if she was really dead or had just been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. But in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the play achieves catharsis.

Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don’t take any of this too seriously: it’s just playful illusion? Perhaps it’s a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into careless comedy complete with songs, ballet, slapstick and a miracle (if that’s what it is) to end with and undermine belief still further. Or is Shakespeare showing his mastery by merging tragedy and comedy in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

I see resonances in The Winter's Tale of the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ.  It seems to take us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. It’s one great transformation scene that leads us out of winter into summer, bringing colour into the greyscale it began with. Paulina has a great line near the end: ‘it is required you do awake your faith’. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, and yet find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved by this recognition scene. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we are drawn rather wonderfully into the life of things that are both tragic and comic. It’s either parody or it’s gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the self-importance of so much of life and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but real and that lasts for ever.

Many of the Easter stories in the gospels are recognition scenes: the astonishing reversal of separation and loss in the joyful reunion of followers and friends with the risen Jesus.  Think of Mary Magdalen, supposing him to be the gardener, hearing him pronounce her name and recognising him as Rabbouni.  Think of the eleven behind locked doors and the Visitor who greeted them as only Jesus could, ‘peace be with you’.  Think of Thomas who would not believe, and his radiant confession of faith: ‘my Lord and my God’.  Think of Peter and the disciples after the miraculous catch of fish: ‘it is the Lord!’ All rather like statues brought back to life.

But for supreme artistry, go to St Luke’s story of Emmaus that we heard this morning.  The two disconsolate disciples trudging back home, joined by unknown stranger; their conversation on the road, the supper at which guest turns host, the familiar action of bread blessed and broken, the moment of recognition, the excited return to the city to tell the others – it is exquisitely told: there is not a false note anywhere.  Its intimacy and naturalness, its portrayal of the characters strikes us as entirely believable.  We are there: it is happening before our eyes.  Indeed, so vivid is it that we want to go beyond the sense of watching a drama happening to other people and say: truly this is happening to us. 

The journey is a favourite theme of St Luke. His Jesus is always on the move: indeed, the gospel is largely constructed around the theme of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that ends in suffering and death.  But here is a journey from Jerusalem. It reminds me of that early story Luke tells about how Jesus’ family were going home after their visit to Jerusalem for the feast. His parents think the lad is among the crowd, but he isn’t. So back they go, and find him in the temple, recognise him ‘in my father’s house’, going about his Father’s business. Here is another journey, only this time, the Emmaus two think Jesus is not with them, yet they find he is.  Christ incognito, absent yet present, hidden yet disclosed, abased yet glorified, unknown yet well-known – these are St Luke’s themes.  And, says today’s story, when we take the risk of travel, walk by faith into an unknown future, the risen Christ comes to us as our fellow-traveller. There is recognition.  There is joy.  

There is another way in which we find we recognise. Luke’s gospel is a story full of eating and drinking.  Many of his key moments happen at the meal table where Jesus eats with tax-gatherers and sinners.  At the last supper he teaches his disciples about true service, and what the giving of his own body and blood will mean.  Does this recall how it was through a first supper that the human race was banished from paradise, when the man and the woman took the forbidden fruit and ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’.  At that primordial meal, two people came to a recognition that led to death.  At the Emmaus meal, two people come to a recognition that leads to life.  ‘Their eyes were opened and they recognised him’ says Luke; as if to say: here, at Easter, with the first supper of the first day of the week, here is a new beginning.  Humanity’s long exile is over.  The way back to paradise is open at last. Eyes are opened; new life is breathed into our cold, rigid, statuesque existence. We recognise the risen Lord, we know who and what we are in the resurrection of Jesus.

In these days of Easter we celebrate with joyful hearts the memory of God’s wonderful works.  Luke says that the risen Christ walks with us, reveals to us the mystery of his being, crosses the threshold of our lives so that we recognise the one who wants to make his home with us.  What more do we need to know?  Like the disciples on that far-off day, we too are joined by the stranger who walks this earth and speaks to us of peace and hope.  ‘We greet him the days we meet him, and bless when we understand’, said Gerard Manley Hopkins, when the half-light of our existence is transformed into the full light of God’s new day, and our eyes are opened, and our hearts burn within us. Like Leontes, we know that it is required that we ‘awake our faith’, but that is precisely God’s Easter gift to us: that we recognise him, and know him, and love him, and find ourselves surprised by joy that our lives are given back to us, and winter’s tale has been transformed into spring.

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