The Eureka Moment Of Resurrection
The description of the events surrounding the murder of Jesus given by the disciples of Emmaus sounds like the preamble to a detective story: an intriguing character (“a prophet mighty in deed and word”) sentenced to death in tumultuous circumstances, a political intrigue, a burgeoning popular revolt against the Roman dominion nipped in the bud - and when everyone was still reeling from the brutality of the way in which the murder had been orchestrated and executed, a dead body that disappears from the tomb, followed by the wildest stories, including reports of visions of angels.
I might have been reading too many of Conan Doyle’s stories during this period of lockdown, but I can’t help thinking that the apparently supernatural aura surrounding this murder would immediately entice Sherlock Holmes’ interest. Where grieving and credulous disciples are eager to invoke mysteries and unexplained occurrences, the objective and inquiring mind confidently thinks that there must be a rational explanation.
Reference to Sherlock Holmes with regards to the resurrection is less facetious than one might think. Conan Doyle’s stories popularized a positivist approach to reality and history whereby truth can be ascertained only if facts are strictly insulated from values. Unlike facts, values (and faith in the resurrection here counts as value) cannot be proven true or false by scientific inquiry and therefore should not be taken into account. The possibility that someone might be still alive after established and therefore undoubtable death will never be taken as a serious possibility, however many witnesses might testify to it.
The positivist mindset however is not the only one which struggles to make sense of the events that followed Jesus’ murder. Even those who had been Jesus’ disciples, had seen him performing miracles, believed that he was the instrument of special divine action, were puzzled and confused. They claimed to have seen Jesus alive, but just like the disciples of Emmaus, despite having known him intimately before his death, were unable to recognize him. The Risen Lord can be physically present and yet is not visible in the same way as any other of the realities of this world.
This is what we learn by paying attention to the way he makes himself known to the disciples of Emmaus. This page of the Gospel teaches us that access to whatever the resurrection might mean relies on two factors: the burning of heart and the opening of the eyes.
Sherlock Holmes would obviously be unimpressed here: feelings are notoriously unreliable. Our heart might burn– it is a well attested religious experience – but we can never be certain as to what we are feeling and why. Feelings always have to be interpreted - and especially during the last century we have become aware of the extent to which this interpretation can be influenced by subconscious drives and group pressure. We know the phenomenon of collective delusion: when people are afraid or traumatized they can feel and believe almost anything. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless.
Interestingly, the Gospels of the Resurrection do not seem very concerned to dispel the suspicion of collective self-delusion. They do not present a neat and coherent version of the facts surrounding the resurrection and leave the door open to a variety of interpretations.
At the same time, while willing to report honestly the ambiguity of the facts surrounding the empty tomb, the Gospels do not leave us only with the option of feelings.
On the one hand, yes, the risen Jesus makes his presence felt through his peace and his joy – to the point that the heart burns - and this should not be discarded.
On the other hand the Gospel testifies that feelings make sense only on the basis of the opening of our eyes: the disciplesof Emmaus understood the meaning of the burning of their heart only after they saw something that made sense to them.
Nothing out of the ordinary here. In our everyday experience too, things can be right under our nose for a long timewithout us seeing them – but at one point they unexpectedly start to mean something. We describe this moment as a ‘realization’, an ‘illumination’, a “eureka moment”: suddenly we see the solution to a previously incomprehensible problem or a desperate situation.
The eureka moment for the disciples was the breaking of bread: we are told than when Jesus performed this very simple, usual, almost trivial gesture, their eyes were open. At that instant Jesus disappears because they do not need to see him physically any more to know that he is still alive and that he is there with them.
Now if we fear that the ‘breaking of bread’ might be too unempirical to qualify as a eureka moment, we are in good company. After all, the trigger of the eureka moment was a hot bath for Archimedes, a falling apple for Newton, the oars of a boat for Mahler’s 7th symphon. It is fascinating what you find when you google eureka moment…
The key factor people usually overlook with reference to a eureka moment however is that it requires long, patient and often strenuous work.
Louis Pasteur said that ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’. Had Archimedes and Newton not been researching in their respective fields for decades, never would they have been prepared to welcome their breakthroughs.
Just in the same way, the eureka moment of faith in the resurrection is prepared by a long and patient work of interpretation of Scriptures, which is expressed narratively in our passage when it is said that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.”
Faith in the resurrection is not a just a feeling but is based on arguments, witnesses, interpretations, explanations, listening, questioning, doubting.
And yet, just as with the other famous eureka moments in history, it is not the simple result of a logical conclusion, of a clever interpretation. Faith in the resurrection needs a trigger, a catalyst, something that all of the sudden gives a coherent shape to all the scattered and until then disjointed pieces of the puzzle.
As we saw, for the disciples of Emmaus this moment was the breaking of bread - and interestingly, the Gospel gives noexplanation as to how and why this sign is so powerful and eloquent.
The reason for this omission is simple: the only way of understanding is not looking for an explanation but partaking in the breaking of the bread on our turn. There is something in this gesture which speaks by itself.
If we want to have or renew or deepen our own eureka moment with regard to faith in the resurrection we don’t have to take a bath nor wait under an apple-tree, but take part in the weekly breaking of bread of our Eucharistic celebrations.
This is why Jesus’s last wish before he died was that we should repeat the breaking of bread “in memory of him”.
To open the eyes of our inner Sherlock Holmes the Gospel does not rely on an empirical proof of the resurrection but on a symbol lovingly repeated in memory of who Jesus is and of the way faith in him changes history.
I break the bread because I want to share it with others and partaking in it creates a bond between those who are nourished by it – all those who eat this one bread become one with each other in a community committed to serve and feed every human person in the world, from neighbour to neighbour, one neighbour at the time. As the apostle John says. “only your love for one another will be the eye opening trigger the world needs to know, to realize that you are my disciples” (John 13.35).