Servant-Girl at Emmaus painting
Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 23, 2023
Luke 24:13-35 “I Think it is Him!”
If you have ever done Bible study with me, you know that I like to explore the scriptures using both artwork and poetry. I find that studying the way artists interpret scripture to be very enlightening. A few years ago, when this story of the disciples encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus was discussed in our Bible study, I came across this painting. It is entitled “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus” by Diego Velazquez, a pre-eminent Spanish artist in the early 17th century. In it we see a servant girl, tasked with hosting Jesus and the two disciples in the Inn they stopped at. Clearly listening to the conversation happening behind her, we see this young girl, of what the artist describes as mixed race – Spanish Christian and African Muslim. The Moors, as that population was called in Velazquez’s time and context, were a deeply marginalized people. They were labeled as lazy and kept outside of the mainstream of society. The artist, I believe, is depicting the very person Jesus came to serve, the marginalized of society, as being one of the first to understand that he truly was the risen Messiah.
The poet, Denise Levertov, clearly agrees. On the insert in your bulletin, you will find a poem she wrote about this painting. Levertov, a late 20th century poet of English descent who moved to the United States in the 1950s, created a story for this servant girl, giving her a voice. I would like to read that for you:
The Servant Girl at Emmaus
(A Painting by Velázquez)
She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
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 winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.
I love this painting and the poem that was created to give it even more meaning. I love the way artists help us to approach familiar scripture stories in new ways. Because this one is incredibly familiar. The Road to Emmaus, as it is commonly known, is told each Easter season. It is one of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus that the Christian Church universal has lifted as incredibly important. And I could list for you all of the traditional reasons why this story is so important, but instead, I want us to stay with the art. I want us to stay inside our imaginations.
So, as I have done periodically in the past, I used my imagination to come up with a story that places us in this scene at the Inn in Emmaus, working in the kitchen alongside this servant girl. I desperately wanted to give her a name, but I don’t believe it is my place to do so, so instead when you hear a reference to she or her in the story I am about to tell, please know I am referring to the woman depicted in this painting by Velazquez. And as I read this, I want you to use your best imagination to place yourself in this story. Don’t imagine me, I use the first-person but you are that person. There is something incredibly powerful about placing yourself inside a story, especially a story from our scriptures, listening in – taking it in, and making it your own.
“I hand her the wine jug to take into the three guests and rush back to the fire to tend to the fish and warming bread. I take a deep breath to steady myself. The Inn has been incredibly busy as people leave Jerusalem following the Passover festival, but tonight there are only these three guests. The owner of the Inn will be pleased, I think to myself, with the income we have been making.
I turn around in the kitchen again and am surprised to see that she hasn’t moved. She still has the jug in her hands, but is clearly more interested in listening in on the guest’s conversation than doing her job. I snap my finger to get her attention.
“Hey, take that in!” I say to her in an urgent whisper. “And stop listening in, what’s going on in there is none of our business.” She looks at me distractedly, but quickly straightens up and walks into the dining room to bring the guests the wine. I turn back again to the fire and remove the fish and check to see how the bread is doing. All is well, I think. The guests will eat well tonight. Still not paying much attention to what is happening in the dining room, I hear her come back into the kitchen.
“Hand me a platter to put the fish on, and then grab a napkin to wrap the bread,” I say, again in a whisper. But I don’t hear her move, so I turn and look at her. Her eyes are wide, her mind clearly not on her work.
“What is the matter with you?” I ask, voice edged with irritation.
“I think I know him,” she said, her voice also a whisper, but not like mine. Her voice sounded different, hushed but in awe.
“Who?” I ask, looking out into the dining room again.
“That man there, I think that is Jesus. We saw him once, remember, when he was teaching a few months ago nearby? Jesus of Nazareth,” she said, her eyes growing wide with excitement, “the rabbi doing and saying all of those extraordinary things.”
I look into the dining room again. I study all three people out there, and one does, I admit, look a bit familiar. But, that’s impossible. I look at her again.
“It can’t be. Didn’t you hear, they killed him because of all those things he said.” I shake my head. It was sad, I think. He had made me wonder for the first time that the impossible was possible. But, the powers of this world did what they always do, silence anyone who gives people like me hope. “He’s gone”, I say to her.
But, she shakes her head, her face growing more and more excited. “But some women said they had seen his tomb empty this morning!”
“That was just a rumor,” I say, sympathetically.
She shakes her head again. Grabbing the fish and bread, she takes them out to the dining room. I watch this time. She puts them on the table and the one that looks familiar says thank you to her. She stands for a moment, looking at him, studying him really, but then walks back into the kitchen. She comes to stand alongside me, and we watch as he picks up the bread and says something. We can’t quite hear, but the two with him, start to sit up a bit straighter. Then when the man breaks the bread to serve it, the two with him startle, nearly jumping out of their chairs. I feel something inside me almost quiver, and next to me she inhales sharply.
It is him!, I think to myself, unable to speak. It can’t be, but it is! And just as I reach out to grab her hand so she knows I see it too, Jesus’ eyes sweep from his two companions and looks straight at us. A feeling like I have never before experienced – hope mixed with thrill or fear or awe – fills me, almost overwhelms me. It feels like a flame is lit inside me.
But, in an instant, he disappears. It was like I blinked my eyes and he was gone. I stand in stunned silence, not sure what happened. But, when she runs into the dining room, I find myself following her.
“That was him, wasn’t it?!?” she asks the guests, words tumbling out of her mouth.
We shouldn’t be talking to the guests like that, I can’t help myself from thinking, we are just servants. But something about what had just happened made me not worry about it too much. The two remaining guests were standing now, just as wide-eyed as we were.
“Our hearts were burning inside us the entire time he was talking!” one of them said.
“How could we not see!?!” the other exclaimed.
“It was him, wasn’t it!” she said again, even more excitedly. “It was him, Jesus!”
One of the guests started to nod excitedly, color rising in his face. “Yes!” he nearly shouted, “He had said to us, he told us, but we didn’t believe, how could it be, but he said he would be killed but then rise again! He had told us that, but we didn’t think it possible. But now we know, it is possible. All of it, everything he said, is possible!” While he was still talking, the other guest reached for some coins and put them on the table.
“We have to go, we have to return to Jerusalem, tonight, now. They must know we have seen the Lord!” he exclaimed. Heading for the door, they both reached out to us, and grabbing our hands, one said, “Tell everyone what you have seen!” And they rushed out the door.
I looked over at her, seeing her face lit up, her eyes big, almost like I could see the joy inside her spirit. “Come on,” she said, grabbing my hand, “Let’s go tell everyone that it is all possible!” And as we rushed to the door, leaving behind everything that we thought was important, I noticed something odd. In the midst of all the excitement, the wonder, the mystery, I noticed that that flame I felt lit inside me when he looked at me was still lit and I knew then, the fire would never go out.”
God of all that is possible, we notice that our hearts are burning within us as we think of your son, the Risen Christ, and all that was made real by his presence amongst us. For the gift of his life and ministry that you have given us, we give you great thanks. And it is in that gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
So often, God, when we imagine what is possible with you, something stops us from truly believing that it is indeed possible. Help us, in those moments too filled with doubt, to hold fast to what you have promised us at our creation – that we are your beloved and with you nothing is impossible.
Even as we cling to this hope that you offer for ourselves, we know that there are too many in this world for whom hope is what feels impossible. We lift them to you in our prayers today, trusting that your love for them is and will always be enough. In these moments of silence, we open our spirits to you, trusting in your love and grace…
Great and good God, you are our beginning and our present and our future. Through it all, we carry with us the teachings of the Risen Christ, our savior and guide, the one who lights a fire inside us that can never go out. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…