Easter 3 - a Supper at Emmaus

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson, 4 May 2014

Acts 2.14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-25

“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to
the truth so that you have have genuine mutual love, love
one another deeply from the heart.” 1 Peter 1:22

I would like us to turn form hearing one of the gospel stories
that continually inspires and uplifts us to looking at one of
the most famous paintings of Diego Velazquez, the early
17th century Spanish Painter. His depiction of Christ in the
House of Mary and Martha is well known to many of us
because it is in the collection of the National Gallery. The
painting takes its name from the scene on the right hand
corner in which we see Jesus with the ever devoted Mary at
his feet, and an older woman behind her. In the foreground,
the focus of the picture, we see a servant girl on the verge
of tears with her work. She looks out at us. An older woman
gives advice in her ear and points her, and us, beyond the
occupation of the kitchen to the scene in which Christ
appears. And then, that feast for the eyes as well as the
belly, the vibrant sea bass, the eggs, garlic and pepper.
Diego Velázquez. Christ in the House of Mary and
Martha. c.1618. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.
Three thoughts are promoted by this Velazquez.

The first is that what is depicted is meeting of two worlds.
The scene with Christ is set in the biblical period. But the
maid and old woman are set in Velazquez’s own Seville.
The second is the scene of Christ. Art critics are in
disagreement about what it is. Some say its a painting on
the wall. A very few a window allowing us to view activity in
another room. More say it is a mirror that reflects a scene
that is taking place in the space that we the viewers inhabit.
The third is the truly delightful depiction of food. The fish, a
sign of Christ, the eggs of the resurrection the garlic and
pepper, perhaps the seasoning of faith, or pointing to that
mixture of the sweet and sour in all Christian discipleship.
The pictorial cue, for me, in combining all these thoughts are
in the two depictions of the older women on the canvass. In
the scene with Christ it is a much older woman than Mary
who seems to represent Martha. She stands behind her
sister, her head arching, her back straining, her hands
raised in her objection that Mary is of little domestic use. Her
hand gesture is met by a reciprocal and gentle one from
Christ, who in response to Martha, and hearing and
responding to her, does not lose his attention from Mary at
his feet.

The older woman in the foreground of the painting echoes
the one on the wall. She too is shawled. She too stands
behind a younger woman. She too raises her hand. But this
hand is raised to direct the maid beyond her work to the
contemplation of the scene with Christ. It’s as if the Martha
of the background has become a devoted Mary of the
foreground. Or even further, has become like Christ himself,
the one who offers his teaching and person which is the true
bread of life.

For me this painting pictorially represents some of the great
difficulties of reading from scripture and applying it to our
own situation. When the two worlds meet there is no easy
resolution offered from one to the other. None of us conform
to any sort of biblical type, none are wholly Mary, none
Martha. When the two worlds meet none us are quite sure
about where we stand. Are we with the older or younger
woman, the ones a the front or the back? Or are we with
Christ, and who is the Christ figure anyway? When the two
worlds meet there is much food to nourish both body and
soul. But it comes at the cost of the smell that garlic creates,
the tears that peppers stimulate. Velazquez’s canvass then
offers a mediation on the complications and difficulties of
Christian life and discipleship, comforting for all us who
struggle with what it means to follow Christ in the minutiae
of our day to day domestic decision making. Comforting
because the canvass’ gaze remains resolutely humane, in
that it is for the characters of the foreground for whom we
are prompted to human sympathy.

Diego Velázquez. Kitchen Maid with the Supper at
Emmaus. c.1618. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Ireland,
Dublin, Ireland.

The second picture of Velazquez that I would like us to look
at this morning of less well known, but relates to our gospel
reading for today. This depiction of The Kitchen Maid with
the Supper at Emmaus hangs in the National Gallery of
Ireland, and there is another similar one in Chicago.
Velazquez here paints a scene that is not in the gospel text,
but which may well have lain behind it. In first century
Jewish Palestinian society the domestic sphere was the
realm of women and here he depicts a domestic. In this
painting too there is a meeting the two worlds: biblical and
Spanish. Emmaus, Jesus and the disciples are located on
the top left, whilst the foreground brings us back to Seville.
Here too there is also a confusion about the location of the
background characters. Is this a picture too? Are we looking
through an internal window into another room? Is this a
mirror reflecting the place where we are standing? Here
there is a scarcity of food, only the garlic bulb on the right. It
seems as if she may have served the food and bread for a
meal and has come back in to fetch a pitcher of water or

In this scene Velazquez seems to capture a moment in the
maid’s serving of the meal in which her attention is drawn
into the other room. Maybe its a rushed affair, the
overturned jug and bowl on the right, the tottering pot on the
left give it an air of busyness. She too seems poised for yet
more action. But she is also still, her head tilted halfway to
the biblical scene behind. She is clutching the jug, but her
attention is less in the kitchen than with Christ and the
disciples. Velazquez seems to paint the act of listening, or is
it overhearing, even eaves-dropping?

The Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov offers a
mediation on this painting which equates this listening with
an act of recognition on the maid's part to the presence of
the risen Christ.

The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez)
by Denise Levertov

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his - the one who had looked at her, once, across the
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

Levertov describes the kitchen maid as listening. She is the
one who has the ears that are ready to hear. Surely that is
the voice of the one who had spoken to her. Surely those
were the hand of the one who restored and healed. Surely
that that was the face of the One. And in reply to her three
questions comes the word ‘man’ three times. The man who
was crucified. The man whose death was rumoured not to
be the end. The man who was alive again. But Levertov’s
mediation reaches it’s climax in her assertion that it this
kitchen maid, this ‘young Black servant’, who recognised the
risen Christ even before the disciples whom we meet in the
gospel of Luke. For she ‘swings round and sees/ the light
around him/ and is sure.’

The poem brings our attention to to the issue of race.
Velazquez paints the maid as either black or of mixed
ethnic origin. Imperial Seville was the centre of trade with
the New World and had become immensely wealthy on the
back of the colonisation of the the Americas. But it was also
an intensely religious centre with many monasteries,
convents and houses of learning. A vibrant debate took
place in Seville, as in Spain as a whole, about the ethical
aspects of the enslavement of both africans and native
americans, and also about whether or not such people could
really be Christians at all. Velazquez’s painting could be
read then as his association of himself with those who felt
and pressed strongly for the recognition of the common
human dignity of those of a different race, as well as a
questioning of the moral justification of the practice of
slavery. For as Levertov, I think rightly detects, she listens,
she swings around, she sees and she is sure.

In this sense the painting embodies that primary and raw
teaching of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last first.
Pictorially the young, black, slave takes the centre of the
frame. She has been brought from the background to the
fore. She is the one who embodies Christ. Or as the poet
Natasha Trethewey puts it “She is echo/ of Jesus at table,
framed in the scene behind her:/ his white corona, her white
cap. Listening, she leans/ into what she knows. Light falls on
half her face.” (Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or
The Mulata) Tretheway reminds us that Jesus is not the
centre of the painting, the woman is; although both are
intimately connected. But the woman servant implicitly
represents whom Christians believe God in Jesus Christ to
be: the One who came not to be served but to serve and to
give his life that many should live fully. She also represents
Jesus’ teaching too. Her vocation is one of humility, of
hospitably and charity, of a giving of herself to and for
others. She is the one who has become the Christ. She is
the one who has been raised from the dead by the
brushstrokes of the painter. She enfleshes God to the
viewer of the canvass. It is she who reveals who God is to

There is an aptness about focussing this morning on this
female and black portrayal of the God whom we see
revealed in Jesus Christ. Those of us who follow the
religious news will be aware that yesterday in St Paul's
Cathedral there was a celebration for the twentieth
anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Yet there was also a report this week which diagnosed
institutional racism within the Church, because less than 5%
of senior appointments are held by clergy who are not white.
The issues of gender, ethnic diversity and priestly
representation are as alive in our own church as they were
in 17th century Seville.

I hope that this year as we listen again and respond intently
to that most beautiful gospel of the meeting of the risen
Christ in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus that we can
allow Velazquez and Levertov to deepen our appreciation of
what it means to have faith in Jesus’ resurrection and to
meet Christ in bread-breaking. Too often our belief can
become too individualistic and too religious. We often turn
resurrection faith into an assent to a magic trick on the dead
Jesus’ body. We often locate Luke’s story too quickly only in
what we celebrate in Eucharist in the Church. But Velazquez
depicts a humane and a social Christian vision. He
reminds us, as indeed the text of Luke itself does, that
recognition of and participation in the resurrection life occurs
when the fullness of the meaning of Christ's life and
teaching are understood, grasped, affirmed and lived out. To
recognise and receive Christ in the breaking of bread is to
see God's presence in the heavenly vision of proper lifegiving
human social relationships that each Eucharist
enacts. Here all are equal before God. Equal recipients of
God's life and grace. Equal priestly embodiments of the
presence of God in the world. Equal servants of the One
who is the servant of all.

“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to
the truth so that you have have genuine mutual love, love
one another deeply from the heart.” 1 Peter 1:22

This morning we see in this black kitchen maid at Emmaus
those who are often invisible made visible. This morning in
the Eucharist we receive the body of the invisible risen and
ascended Christ made visible in bread and wine and in the
right relationship of the community that we attempt to build.
This morning they, both she and he, invite us to be their
guests at the table and work for that fullness of the coming
of the kingdom in which all come from east and west and
north and south to feast at the heavenly banquet. Let us
pray for the grace to meet, what we all know is, that very
difficult task of creating those social relationships that
banquet in our midst.