Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.John 21: 12-14
It is often said that we Christian believers live our lives in the “between time,” that is between the first and the second comings of Jesus. The post-resurrection narratives we are reading these days help us to understand that experience, as it describes to us the experience of Jesus’ closest disciples in the time “in-between” Jesus ministry and death and his ascension and “disappearing from their sight” that occurs some weeks after his resurrection.
Jesus, who has just granted the gift of the overflowing catch of fish to his disciples, invites them to have breakfast with him. As throughout the stories of the resurrection appearances, it is in breaking bread with Jesus that the disciples recognize him. Yet, there remains a note of questioning on the part of the disciples. They both “realized it was the Lord,” but also dared not voice their doubts or questions. What is the meaning of John’s inclusion of this detail concerning the withholding by the disciples of their self-doubt?
It is a foundational article of our faith that Christ is truly risen. In our liturgical proclamation of faith we do not say, “Christ has risen” but rather Christ is risen. Our life is a life in the risen Jesus. All of life, for us, is colored by this truth. We see and experience the world and everyone and everything in it in light of our being “raised with Christ.” Precisely because we live in this “in-between” state, however, we perceive and so live out our lives with two sets of eyes, with those of the Risen Lord, from our life in God, and those of the still unredeemed self. It is the state of the disciples in today’s gospel. They both realize it is the Lord and yet experience from within a deep doubt they fear verbalizing.
Last evening I shared a meal with close friends. Since we share a love of film, it is often one of our topics of conversation. For a time we spoke of our experience of the works of the director David Lynch. Among some of his best known films are Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive. One of the most enduring film images for me is the opening scene of Blue Velvet. It begins with a “picture” of the well-ordered houses and lawns of suburbia. We see a wife watching television and drinking coffee and a husband watering the lawn. But then, a gun appears on the television and the husband falls to the ground with a stroke. The camera then, however, zooms in close-up to the stricken man and then into the earth beneath him where we see the violent struggle for survival in the life of the creatures that inhabit that subterranean universe. We see an image of what Tennyson termed “nature red in tooth and claw.”
The work of David Lynch has tended to evoke a deep sense of unease in me. I recall a similar experience as I watched, for the first time, the opening episodes of Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed television series Mad Men. That series opens during the 1950’s and captures well, it seems to me, the great distance between the highly conventional society and mores of suburban America that was the surface of life and the unbridled self-seeking and uncontrollable impulses that lurked just beneath the surface. These artists and their works make me uneasy because they force me to confront the truth that the security we gain through “conventional wisdom” and socially acceptable norms are really just “skin deep.” We learn throughout our early life formation to sublimate, suppress, and even repress aspects not only of our own psyches but also the reality of the world in order to attain a comfortable level of complacence and self-assurance.
Often, of course, it is our moral and religious sense, as we interpret it, that is the prime force behind this reduction of our awareness and vision. There is a grand irony here because when our so-called religious sensibility serves our repression of the real, it is also repressing the Mystery. The sense of unease that these films and television series gives rise to in me is my unease with life and world as they truly are. The reaction is quite primordial and existential, as it is the personal experience of the dread we all have about the world being too much for us. What these works force me to confront is how much I fear not just the external world but myself. Within me are all the impulses and urges that I despise in some of these characters. My desire to create order around myself always has about it, some degree of repression of the mystery inherent in reality, of that which is too much for me.
It is strange that the gospel would describe the experience of the disciples’ realization that the one inviting them to breakfast is the Lord by saying that they did not dare to ask him who he was. Yet, it is also consistent throughout the gospels. For time and again when the Risen Jesus enters their midst we are told they are afraid. In practice, we tend to confuse spiritual awareness with spiritual tranquilization. This is why Marx can, with some accuracy, observe that religion is often the opium of the people. When the Risen Jesus manifests himself to the disciples, they, of course, are drawn in to him in love, on the one hand, but they are also fearful on the other.
This is a great consolation to us. One of the greatest aspirations of Theodore James Ryken, the founder of my community, was that he and his brothers would learn to harmonize in their way of being the lives of Martha and Mary, of contemplation and service. This aspiration is really one of harmonizing the inherent dichotomy in the life of each of us. We are both a powerful longing and desire for presence and openness, for a wholehearted reception and love of reality and an anxious managing of that reality. So often, we rationalize our failure to meditate and pray, to receive the gift of contemplation that is always offered to us, by saying we, in our generosity, are too busy serving others to do so. But the real reason that we fail to receive the presence and love of the Risen One is that we are anxious and afraid. We domesticate our faith and our God with our white picket fences and manicured lawns, because life as mystery is too much for us.
So, the apparent contradiction in the gospel’s description of the disciples reception of the Risen Jesus into their lives can be a consolation for us. As Jan van Ruusbroec says, God would, if we would allow it, transform “our being in its entirety in God.” In ever more delicate, deep, and nuanced ways, however, we must keep learning and practicing how to trust the truth and God in our lives. It is only “in its entirety” that our being can be transformed in God. We cannot choose only what we are comfortable with in ourselves and in the world and attempt to deny or repress that which we fear. The Risen One bears the wounds of our selfishness, hatred, and violence that brought him to his death. There is no such thing as surface transformation. We can minimize life and world to a manageable size, and then try to create for ourselves a world that we proclaim to be saved. But our repressed and frightening reality lies just below the surface. Jesus is with the disciples, yet they are still emotionally conflicted. They have yet further to go to become the bearers of the Holy Spirit’s passion and compassion for the world. They have not as yet overcome that self-consciousness that keeps turning their eyes from Jesus to their own fears. And so it is with us. We, as they, are invited by Jesus to break bread with him and so to be nourished on the way to the realization that in every moment, no matter how it feels to us, “It is the Lord.”
If we are living a contemplative life we will experience ourselves as living in God. From out of this life in which we experience ourselves as living in God, there shines upon our inner eye a resplendence which enlightens our reason and serves as an intermediary between ourselves and God. If with our enlightened reason we remain standing within ourselves in this resplendence, we will feel our created life in its essential being constantly being immersed in its eternal life. But when we follow this resplendence above and beyond reason with a simple gaze and a willing inclination of our very self right into our highest life, then we experience the transformation of our being in its entirety in God. We thus experience ourselves as being completely embraced by God.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II, D