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The Servant-Girl at Emmaus
(A Painting by Vélasquez)
Denise Levertov
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.

The Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most familiar, and one of the most mysterious, of the Resurrection narratives. Two of Jesus’ disciples—we don’t know their names—are on their way out of Jerusalem, headed for the village of Emmaus. Along the way, they meet a stranger, and fall into conversation. Of course, all the talk is about the news - about Jesus, who has just been crucified. The two disciples talk about the destruction of their hopes that he was the Messiah, but the stranger responds to the news differently. He points them to the Scriptures and explains how all of this was foretold to them—this is the only way the Messiah’s destiny could unfold. Only when the three pause at an inn for the night, and the stranger breaks bread with them, do they recognize Jesus – and he immediately vanishes. And they hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others what has happened.
It’s a colorful story, and has been a favorite for artists. There’s the journey and the conversation with the stranger… and that moment of recognition, when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks, and the two disciples realize who he is.
“The Servant-Girl at Emmaus” by 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, also depicts the moment of recognition—but from quite a different perspective. At first glance, the painting is of a servant girl working in a kitchen, perhaps about to fill that pitcher she is touching. In the foreground we see a wonderful still-life, where the artist showcases his ability to capture many different textures – silver, earthenware, enamel, linen, wood, weaving. We may need to take a second look before we notice the Emmaus story unfolding in the upper left, where Jesus is about to break the bread. Only then do we start to notice other details rich in meaning: a dove that looks like it is about to break free, and a white napkin or rag, suggesting the burial cloth left behind in the empty tomb.
The center of the painting, of course, is the girl. From her attentive expression, we know she is listening to what is happening in the room beyond—and we know that she knows something!
Denise Levertov’s poem imagines the girl’s thoughts during this moment of suspense. In her telling of the story, Jesus is no stranger to this young woman. She has encountered him before. “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?” She recognizes his voice because she has spent time listening to his teaching. She recognizes his hands—“hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well”—because she has witnessed Jesus at work. The disciples will come to recognize Jesus when he breaks the bread, but this young woman—who has brought the bread to the table—already knows who he is. Velazquez’s painting beautifully captures a moment of stillness and recognition. Levertov’s poem lets us see what happens next, when the girl “swings round and sees / the light around him / and is sure.”
There is a theme that runs through the Resurrection narratives, and indeed, through the Gospels: Jesus chooses women, often women who are outsiders,
to be his witnesses. They are the first to recognize him as the Risen Lord, the first to tell the apostles the good news. And that sends a clear message to every Christian:  we need to listen to each other, especially the voices of those we might consider to be “outsiders.” Because when we really listen to the witness of others, we aren’t just learning about them; we are glimpsing God in them. Both the painting of Velasquez, and the poem of Levertov, invite us to recognition: to see Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in each other.



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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303