As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24.28-31)
Caravaggio’s famous painting The Supper at Emmaus (1601) illustrates this famous scene from Luke’s Gospel. This is the first mass, celebrated by Christ himself. Here Christ is made known ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ The natural world of food, and the normal human act of being at table together, are infused with the supernatural as the presence of Christ unites all. Here a domestic scene dramatically becomes the mass. The people are gathered around the table and the artist invites us in, to be part of the Supper.
The travellers on the road were puzzled, and disillusioned. Their hearts were warmed by the reading and exploration of Scripture and then Christ declares himself in the breaking of bread. That movement is the movement of the Mass. We travel, we seek understanding and Christ proclaims himself in the breaking of bread in the Sacrament of the Mass.
Look at the cook, standing and looking on. He is still questioning, wondering, but sensing that in some way this is a special moment. His contribution is accepted and blessed, and he himself, though perplexed is there, he is accepted and included.
In these strange days of social distancing, and closed churches, Caravaggio’s painting challenges us to find Christ in the domestic meal around the table. These times are disturbing and perplexing. They are days also to learn from. Perhaps, and indeed hopefully, after the troubled time is over we will have discovered a distinctive role for Christian community which places a special value on the small community celebration shown to us at Emmaus – with simple ritual and without distinctive vesture. A community which values smallness and intimacy, gathered around table where Christ is known in the everyday breaking of bread.
The curator of late 17th century paintings gives a fascinating talk on Caravaggio on You Tube (click here). From about 10 minutes in you can hear her comments on this painting.
This is the second in a series of three in which we look at a painting related to the story of the Road to Emmaus. You can see the first, Emmaus is today, here.