Although the resurrection is the story of the unexpected hope breaking forth in the midst of tragedy, loss, and defeat, resurrection is also always the cypher for confusion and enigma. Is not the resurrection both presence and absence, hope and deferment. Does it not bring emptiness in the midst of fulfillment?
No narrative illustrates this better than that of the two men who are on their way to Emmaus.
There they walk. They are defeated. What has happened to the faithfulness of God? What has remained of the messianic prophecies that were in process of fulfillment in Jesus Christ? Nothing! It’s all gone.
There they walk and while they are talking about the events of the past days, someone joins them. Since this person apparently is not aware of what happened, they fill him in on the death of Jesus. The most confusing fact of it all is that some women reportedly witnessed an empty grave and saw an angel who talked about Jesus’ resurrection. Sadly, Jesus is not only dead, but his body is gone too. This is what the resurrection rumors have left them with: an empty grave, rumors about a resurrection, and a missing body. If Jesus had remained dead, they would have at least had his body and could erect a monument. But now there is literally nothing left but loss and confusion.
The person who joins them then begins to explain that this is the true meaning of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. That this death is at the very heart of the messianic promises and that this death is the gateway to fulfillment of the promises. A new interpretation begins to form in their minds and with it a new perspective on the tragic events. The defeat of an unfulfilled promise makes room for the hope that all has not been for nothing. Behind the death and the grave of a dead-end road emerges a new horizon of expectation and possibility.
They ask the man, who joined them on the road, to stay overnight. At the evening meal, however, their guest unexpectedly takes the lead in blessing and breaking the bread. The guest becomes the host. And as he does so the two men recognize in the infamous unfullfiller who was assumed dead, the risen Christ. The encounter is not to last, however, for as soon as they recognize him, he disappears. The Risen One has vanishsed. The very moment that the unfulfilled promise is seen as being fulfilled beyond all expectation and disappointment, it leaves a void. The presence of Him who is the embodiment of the hope in the resurrection of the body is turned into an absence of the physical presence of that same resurrected body. The vision of the reality of God’s presence in Christ is immediately transformed into the emptiness of the presence of absence. Here, here… it is here! … There is nothing.
Nothing but joy and the determination to track back their tracks to Jerusalem to meet the others who in turn rejoice in their very own discovery of the absence of the risen Lord. Nothing but to ponder in their hearts the burning that took place there when they absorbed the words of the One who is now gone.
The story of the men traveling to Emmaus is a story of concentric circles of vanishing. The remaining voids are filled up with awe, joy, and hope; of wondering and wandering. They remember how the women at the grave found an empty tomb; they recognize Christ at their table only to see him vanish in mid-air; they meet the other sisters and brothers only to hear and experience the same absence. The risen Christ veils his presence in absence. He performs the ultimate vanishing act: the body too is gone. They saw him no more.
But there is encounter too. A merely empty tomb confounds; a third man who joins the traveling party merely stirs the heart; rumors merely abound but do not revive hope. The encounter with the risen Christ, however, though soon transformed into absence, is that which fills with hope and joy. This encounter, in turn, is too abundant, too transcendent, in spite of its true embodied reality. It is an embodiment that overwhelms its physical environment.
Instead of a haveable resurrection, of an event whose historicity can be approached with probability arguments, we are dealing with something that saturates our vision. The resurrection is an event of God’s eschaton, God’s purposes with the world. It is so full of God’s reality that its manifestation constantly eludes the grasp of our senses. The promise of the God of the hope of the resurrection points through its fulfillment always forward to the God who is always already absent where that God’s presence is recognized. Every recognition on our part results in a deferment of the presence of the God whose reality from our perspective is always in the future. Every presence turned into absence forces us to wonder and each fulfillment opens onto a vacuum that urges us to wander on. Where is Christ? Well, He is risen!
The resurrection is the manifestation of the bodily presence of the Risen One as it is immediately transformed into absence. It leaves us bewildered but full of joy. As we are unable to grasp or understand it, it urges us to look up and always travel onward to Emmaus. We have our eyes opened in order to recognize the Risen Christ who then vanishes in front of our eyes. And so we wonder and wander in search of the One whose absence fills us with joy and hope. Christ is risen. Christ is gone. Hallelujah!
Image: Emmaus by Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992
Benedictine Kornelimünster, Aachen