I wonder what the woman painted by Velázquez, and given voice by Levertov, had hoped
April 23, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright Roughly 400 years ago Diego Velázquez painted “Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus,” with a Moorish servant in the foreground, her head turned to take in the conversation between Christ and two travelers. Inspired by that painting, poet Denise Levertov writes, “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 wine jug she's to take in, a young Black servant intently listening, swings round and sees the light around him and is sure.” Velázquez and Levertov invite us to view this well-known scene through the eyes of someone on the margins – the kind of person who is seldom noticed and never gets named. I think Luke would have approved. He began his story with Jesus’ birth being announced to minimum wage shepherds not powerful kings, so it is fitting that when the risen Lord appears it is not to Herod or Pilate or the High Priest, but to two followers who never did anything worth writing about during Jesus’ lifetime and have now given up and are heading home.
The dejected travelers spoke for lots of his followers when they said, “We had hoped …” Grammarians explain the poignancy of that phrase. “The Greek imperfect tense suggests continuous action, perhaps because it took numerous attempts, or took a long time to complete, or was simply an old habit.” But they cannot tell us for certain whether the travelers were still clinging to it or if the crucifixion had caused them to abandon their hope that Jesus was the Messiah. “We had hoped …” strikes a chord for us because it has been on our tongues: in the doctor’s office after the biopsy comes back; at campaign headquarters after the votes are counted; in a quiet workroom after a pink slip is delivered; when an email arrives telling you that you haven’t been accepted to college; in a lonely bathroom where a plus sign refuses to appear on a pregnancy test; at the front door when a man in a uniform says, “I regret to inform you that …” David Lose writes, “They speak of a future that is not to be, a dream that created energy and enthusiasm but did not materialize, a promise that created faith that proved to be false.” Lose continues, “There are few things more tragic than a dead future. Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: ‘For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.’ It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.”
I wonder what the woman painted by Velázquez, and given voice by Levertov, had hoped. Had she been one of the crowd of people who heard him preach and hoped for her own “good news [for] the poor, release [for] the captives,” and freedom for the oppressed? Did she wish she could walk to the well without racial or sexual taunts … or worse? Was she one of John the Baptist’s disciples who carried his message from prison, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Did she pin her hopes on Jesus’ answer? Did she hope her hard work would count for something in this world? Had she heard of the time a sinful woman barged into a Pharisee’s house and anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? Did she hope Jesus would forgive her sins too? Did she dream of the day when people would judge her on the content of her character, not the color of her skin? Had she made the journey to Jerusalem for Passover? Did she see the crucifixion? Had she helped prepare the spices in that same kitchen in Emmaus? Did she go with the rest of the women and witness the empty tomb? Did she hope Jesus had risen, just as he said he would?
Jesus does not rush the travelers when they say what they had hoped. He gives them time to express their pain and confusion, the depths of their investment and their disappointment, their seedlings of hope and the endless list of things that made them doubt that hope. He gives them time to lament – to catalog all the things they had expected God to do; and all the ways their present reality fell short; and yet how their faith was nudging them to still trust God to follow through. And then, at the right time, he reinforces their hope with promises from scripture. But they still do not recognize him. The readers of Luke are in on the secret. Levertov says the servant woman knows too. But they don’t. For them, the wall between what is real and what still seems real is still too opaque. The story could have stopped there, but it didn’t. They offer him hospitality even though he is a stranger. (Who can say whether that is a cultural default setting or something they picked up from Jesus.) But it is at the meal that the boundary finally crumbles and hope blossoms into joy!
Most meals are simple sustenance, but sometimes God is at work, and we do not block it! I’ve experienced it when I have blessed bread and broken it and shared it with others. It is one of the great blessings of serving communion! We also experienced it during Village’s Lenten studies over simple meals and the study of scripture. Over and over again, our eyes were opened, and we saw God in our midst! It makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be having more meals together. And inviting strangers! Something holy happens there with alarming or exciting regularity! So put another potato in the pot, set an extra place (or two) at the table, invite someone to join you and ask, how would you complete this phrase, “We had hoped …” I’m pretty certain everybody will have an answer. And I’ll bet you will be surprised at the depth of candor and emotion in what they share. Maybe they will be things you had hoped for too. Maybe they won’t. But either way Luke seems to think that Jesus will have sneaked up and joined the conversation. Wouldn’t that be something?! Amen
 “The Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus” by Diego Velázquez  “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez)” by Denise Levertov  From Richard Swanson’s commentary on the text for workingpreacher.org, 5/4/14  From “Broken Before Burning”, his reflection on the text for workingpreacher.org, 4/29/14  This is obviously a nod to Martin Luther King’s phrase from his “I have a dream” speech.