Martha Stortz—April 15, 2009
Joint Liturgy with CDSP
- Acts 3:1–10
- Psalm 118:19–24
- Luke 24:13–35
“Be careful what you look for…That may be all you see.”
At the outset of this Easter Season I want to make a tiny detour to the 16th century—and not to visit the usual suspects, Martin Luther or Thomas Cranmer, though they have a lot to say about this season of Resurrection. No, I want to interview someone else on the topic, someone who doesn’t come readily to mind on the subject of resurrection, but whose journals tell us lots about how to look and what to look for at this time of the church year: Christopher Columbus.
Columbus crossed the Atlantic four times between 1492 and his death in 1506, and he chronicled his adventures obsessively. Of course, he wasn’t looking for “the New World,” he was looking for China and its fabled cities of gold. And on that first voyage he was so focused on China, he literally saw what he was looking for. Raw material for the fabled cities would be mined in mountains that radiated heat, and with every warm breeze, he imagined a mountain just over the horizon that breathed the precious ore. So fixed was he on finding what he was looking for, that he “sighted” mountains on the horizon—even when he was actually still in the open sea. It’s extraordinary reading: he writes vividly; he saw what he was looking for.
Columbus also wanted to see mermaids. It may have been deprivation of the company of women, but he records multiple mermaid sightings in his journals. Columbus and his crew never quite caught one, but the flick of a tailfin, the flash of a fish sparked paragraphs of longing. The journals fueled the imagination of his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who bankrolled his voyages from Sevilla, a busy port of trade. Their grandson grew up on stories of exotic creatures from far away. Charles later served as King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor during the first half of the 16th Century. He regarded Luther and the Germans as more barbarian than exotic, and he never forgot those mermaids. Whenever he could, he repaired to the Alcazar, that fabulous royal palace in Sevilla, where relying on nothing more than Columbus’ feverish imagination, he populated the royal palace with mermaids: they float across frescoes, they swim across the surface of the tiles. He saw what he was looking for.
What might Columbus and Charles V tell us about this sacred season of Easter? Well, I’m not going to suggest that resurrection is as fantastic as mermaids and fire-breathing mountains… But I will observe that when seen through the lens of their longings, the readings for today, this Easter Wednesday, caution us to be careful what you look for.
That may be all you see.
The readings for today are cautionary tales about looking—and not seeing. They show us that seeing is less about the eye—than the brain. The disciples on the road to Emmaus: they only see what they are looking for. They are not looking for resurrection; they are not expecting to see their resurrected Christ. Despite the testimonies of Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and nameless other “women,” they did not believe what the women saw: a stone rolled away in front of an empty tomb, two men in dazzling garments suddenly in their midst. These disciples on the road to Emmaus are not expecting to hear what the women heard: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5–7). Despite the testimony of the women, they are not looking for Jesus, and so they do not see the risen Lord, in their midst.
Their conversation with the fabulously well-read rabbi confirms this. First, they are sad—not rejoicing, as they should have been had they actually believed the women. Then, they are wistful: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). They report the women’s epiphany, but they believe Peter: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him” (24:24). They report the crucifixion—but they are not looking for resurrection. They do not recognize it when it is standing right in front of them.
Be careful what you look for—that may be all you see.
Take the story in Acts, from the Beautiful Gate, called in Greek oraia, “beautiful,” and mis-translated by the dear Jerome into Latin as aurea, “golden,” so that this Gate directly into the Temple Mount is known today as “The Golden Gate.” Ah! You thought San Francisco invented it! It was through this gate, according to Jewish prophecy, that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem, but the people were so busy looking for a warrior, some kind of guerilla leader with lots of guns and lots of warriors in tow, that they did not see a simple man pass through on a donkey, surrounded by people who were armed only with palm branches. Be careful what you look for—that may be all you see.
The Beautiful Gate passed into local lore as a gate of mercy, and the lame man whom Peter and John encounter hopes to cash in on people’s need to rack up a few token acts of mercy before entering the Temple at Jerusalem. He’s looking for a hand-out; that’s all he can see. The author of Luke–Acts is so explicit about looking—he rubs it in our faces. The lame man, “when he saw Peter and John…, he asked them for alms” (Acts 3:3). Peter makes him take a second look, inviting the man to “Look at us” (3:4). Still, even after fixing his gaze on them, the lame man can only see a handout: he is still “expecting to receive something from them” (3:5). Exasperated Peter takes gives him a verbal shake-down: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk” (3:6). Still, the man looks only for a handout.
It isn’t until Peter takes him by the hand and pulls him up, that the weakness falls away from his limbs—and the scales from his eyes. Suddenly, the man healing; suddenly, he sees that he is in the presence of resurrection.
What causes the scales to fall from his eyes in each of these cases? Well, bad news for New Testament scholars and seminary professors in general: it isn’t the caliber of biblical hermeneutics that makes the scales fall from our eyes. On the road to Emmaus, the risen Christ pulls out all the exegetical stops, opening scripture to the disciples and interpreting the prophets—and the disciples still don’t see him. In front of the Beautiful Gate, it isn’t Peter’s protest that he’s broke that convinces the lame man. He’s still looking for a handout; he still doesn’t see resurrection in his midst.
What banishes the scales from their eyes is a simple gesture: Peter took the man by the hand and pulled him up, that’s when the strength began to course through his limbs. Jesus broke bread and blessed it; that’s when the disciples recognize him.
It’s gesture that clarifies vision. It’s gesture that shakes us from that laser-like focus on something we’re so sure is going to help us, we can’t see anything else on the screen. The lame man is so sure he needs alms; he doesn’t see healing, even when it’s right in front of him. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are so sure they need protection and consolation; they miss the very Lord for whom they mourn.
So what are you looking for, that thing that you think will make it all come together? The end of the semester? Graduation? A call? The publication of that one article, that one book that will define your career? Are you looking for love? Or friendship? Or just that perfect pizza? Be careful what you look for: resurrection may be doing cartwheels in the middle of the living room. You won’t see it. Healing may be a heartbeat away. You’ll miss it, because you’re looking for something else.
Look for resurrection: that’s what the texts tell us. It’s here; it’s now, if only you can bear to look. The reality of resurrection is more real that mermaids or fire-breathing mountains. It’s right in front of you.
If we need to be shaken out of our focus on everything but the one thing most needful, those gestures are there in the meal we are about to celebrate. Once again, Jesus breaks bread; once again, Jesus pours out wine. In the simple gestures of sharing his body and blood, we are set firmly in the presence of resurrection.
Martha E. Stortz
Professor of Historical Theology and Ethics
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary—The Graduate Theological Union
Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages, trans. J.M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992).
…I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree —
they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world
At least, closer.
Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyes fish; the unlooping snake,
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky
of God, the blue air.
—Mary Oliver, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Why I Wake Early (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).
Let it be so.