Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. (Luke 24.15-16)
Christ as stranger
In some of the Gospel accounts of encounters between Jesus and his followers after the resurrection, at first they fail to recognise him.
This is not always the case. For instance, in the account in Matthew 28.9-10, there is no indication that the two women returning from the empty tomb have any problem in recognising Jesus when he meets them. In Luke 24.36-43 when he appears to his disciples, they think he is a ghost until he reassures them he is real.
Yet there are other stories in which, at first, he is mistaken for someone else. In Luke 24.13-35, two disciples on the road to Emmaus encounter Jesus, “but their eyes were kept from recognising him”, though later they recall that their hearts were “burning within us” while he was “opening the scriptures” to them. Then, as night is falling, they invite him to stay with them, and when he blesses and breaks bread, they realise who he is, just before he vanishes from their sight.
In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene stands weeping by the empty tomb, and when Jesus appears to her, she thinks at first that he is a gardener, until he calls her by name (John 20.1-18). Then she knows he is her beloved Teacher, and she is sent to inform the other disciples that “I have seen the Lord”.
Then, when some have gone fishing, and caught nothing, he comes to the beach just after daybreak, “but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (John 21.1-13). Then the man on the shore advises them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. They have a huge catch, and the disciple Jesus loved (whom some commentators identify as John or Lazarus) realises that “It is the Lord!” Jesus has lit a fire and is preparing a breakfast of bread and fish for them.
Why the delay in recognition?
While accounts of the resurrection which found their way into the Bible vary, this theme occurs in more than one Gospel. It is as if these disciples are in a mental fog which suddenly lifts, revealing who it is.
There could be practical explanations for the failure of Jesus’ followers, in these passages, to recognise their friend and teacher at first, for instance being less observant because of their grief, and the sheer unlikelihood of seeing him again in person. Yet, even so, it would seem surprising that they would not catch on sooner in these narratives, especially when they heard his voice.
There is also the question of why the authors chose to dwell on this matter. If anything, one might expect them to play down any element of ambiguity.
The Gospel writers may, in part, have been trying to convey that the resurrection body is radically different from that before death, and that the risen Christ is different from – though identified with – the Jesus who was born and died in a particular time and place. This is echoed in the Epistles. For instance, according to 1 Corinthians 15, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’... What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” 1 Peter 1 refers to “the precious blood of Christ”, who “was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.”
The accounts also reflect the experience of believers through the ages, who may not always be aware of Christ. But there may be moments – for instance when in dire need, when listening attentively in conversation or prayer, in hospitality and at Communion – when the Risen One seems vividly present and can transform lives. So these accounts may be read as being about not only the distant past but also the present.
The God of old
There are also perhaps echoes of an ancient tradition. Jewish scholar James L Kugel, in his 2003 book The God of Old, suggests that the widely-held view of God as all-knowing, omnipresent, invisible and remote is not the only way that the divine is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. There are traces of an older approach to reality, in which the spiritual and physical overlap, and God may be encountered in the midst of everyday things. It is the nature of this God, in particular, to act when the cry of the victim is heard.
Several biblical stories, Kugel suggested, centre on a “moment of confusion”, when a character at first encounters someone they think is an ordinary human, and whom they then discover to be an angel or even the divine in human form. For instance, in Genesis 18, “The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oak-trees of Mamre, as he was sitting near the door of his tent in the hot part of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him.” The hospitable Abraham greets them warmly and insists on preparing a feast for them. Then they announce that his elderly wife will have a child, and soon in the narrative Abraham is conversing with God. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “man”, who refuses to reveal his name but blesses him. Jacob later says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life has been spared.”
In Judges 13, someone who appears to be a prophet announces to Manoah’s barren wife that she will give birth to a son. He turns out to be an “angel of the Lord”, as Manoah discovers when, at the stranger’s suggestion, he prepares a burnt offering in thanks to God; as the flames rise up from the altar to the sky, so too does the “angel”. Manoah and his wife fall to the ground in awe, and at first he is afraid that “We will surely die, because we have seen God”, but she reassures him. Their son, Samson, later becomes a heroic national leader. Gideon and Moses likewise suddenly find everyday reality transformed, as they discover they are talking with God.
Such stories maybe resonate with the Gospel accounts of a risen Christ who at first appears to be an ordinary person, until a moment of revelation. Here, God is not just a remote ruler, but intimately present, able to empower the despairing and defeated so that they can play their part in transforming the world.
© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.