Bread from Heaven, VI: Who is the third?
Well as you can tell, this story from Easter Evening is partly inspired by last week’s story of Abraham inviting three strangers into his humble home and discovering that he is in fact entertaining God and two of God’s celestial ambassadors. Here two grieving friends welcome a stranger into their humble home and discover that they’ve been walking and talking with Jesus himself all the while.
In the lofty jargon of biblical scholarship, this story is called a Christophany, an appearance of the Risen Christ. He’s always with us; how and when and where does the ordinarily unseen presence of the Christ become known and palpable and near? Well I’m glad you asked. Three stages: We Walk the Way; We Tell the Story; We Break the Bread.
Jesus becomes known and real and present to us when we walk the way with each other, when we take the time to find out what it is like to walk in different shoes, to live another life, to bear another’s burdens, when we wipe away each other’s tears and laugh at each other’s jokes, and commiserate with the Bears or rejoice with the Packers.
I think maybe I’ve told you before about my friend Linda from my church in Greenwich. For years Linda has been part of a Prison Visitation Ministry by which she drives the 36 miles from Greenwich to the Federal Women’s Penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut. The Federal Pen in Danbury is the real life setting for the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Jenji Kohan moved the story a few miles west to the fictional town of Litchfield, New York, but Piper Kerman, who wrote the book, was incarcerated in Danbury.
Would it surprise you to learn that women inmates are often shunned by their families? That’s not often true of male inmates. Their wives and children continue to visit them and care for them for the duration of their incarceration, but the families of women inmates are often ashamed of them. In some cases, the female inmates themselves forbid their children from visiting them because they are ashamed of themselves.
One inmate named Gillian has children living in Brooklyn, seventy miles from Danbury. That distance of seventy miles, says Gillian, sometimes makes her feel as if she is dead. Her words. She cannot help her children with their homework or wipe their tears away when they weep. But Linda has three children and Gillian can talk to Linda about what it’s like not to be able to comfort your children.
Of her visits with Linda, Gillian says, “They can take the pain away for a while. Sometimes, they make me feel like I’m having lunch in a fancy restaurant.”
It’s just the two of them—Linda and Gillian—in that prison visitation room—but sometimes they look up and suddenly there is a third—who is the third?
T. S. Eliot has this wonderful passage in “The Wasteland”:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you...
Who is that on the other side of you?
Mr. Eliot says those lines were inspired by the Antarctic Expeditions of British Explorer Earnest Shackleton. On an expedition to the Antarctic during World War I, Commander Shackleton’s ship the Endurance got trapped in sea ice. Their plan was to wait till the ship was freed from the ice or drifted toward help, but eventually the ice crushed the ship and it sank, which meant they had to row lifeboats and walk hundreds of miles to a whaling base to survive.
At one point Commander Shackleton and two of his crew had to walk 36 hours straight across a shelf of ice a mile thick. It was 40 below zero. In his journals the explorer speaks of a ghostly but palpable companion walking the way with them. At the limit of their endurance and the extremity of their dying hope, it seemed as if they were not alone. There was another. Shackleton’s memories reminded Poet Eliot of Emmaus. Who is the third?
We walk the way with each other. We walk the seven miles. Also, we tell the story. Luke tells us that on the way to Emmaus, “Jesus interpreted the scriptures for them, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.”
That’s why we come here every seventh day, to hear the ancient story over and over and over again, until we breathe it in like air and drink it in like water and it becomes part of our blood and bone and sinew and synapse and enlightens our minds and shapes our character. ‘Nuff said, right? I don’t think I have to belabor that point. The often-hidden presence of the Risen Christ becomes palpable when we tell the old, old story.
We walk the way. We tell the story. We break the bread. In the breaking of the bread, Luke tells us their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Surely you noticed that this is coded, sacramental language. Where have we heard those hard, active, monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon verbs before? Every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Katie preached about this a couple of weeks ago. These are the verbs Jesus used at the Last Supper and in the Feeding of the Five Thousand—took, blessed, broke, gave. This is the first instance of the Eucharist in the history of the Christian Church.
The sacrament is a numinous moment. The Eucharist is a thin place; the membrane separating the human from the divine is porous and diaphanous and Jesus sneaks through. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. Maybe Christ comes close beyond the celebration of the sacrament, or to put it another way, maybe we should be watchful for the presence of the Risen Christ in the sacrament of the quotidian, the sacredness of the everyday, whenever we break bread together and the conversation breaks through the crust of the mundane and you share genuine communion with those you love or even with those you’re barely acquainted with.
Maybe the most cherished and numinous moments of your life occur not around the communion table at church but around the common breakfast table in your kitchen, or at Thanksgiving dinner, when a teenager shares her secret struggles for the first or a rare time; when you overcome your masculine reticence to tell your wife why you are still madly in love with her after 30 years; when the conversation turns toward the existence, or not, of God at Sunday dinner after confirmation class; when the family agrees on a collective service project.
My daughter is the quiet, shy member of our family. She keeps her own counsel and rarely dominates a conversation. But it turns out she spends her time quietly dreaming up questions that will enliven or deepen our communion together. There will be 15 of us at Thanksgiving dinner, and the dull roar of six different conversations will die down for just an instant, and Taylor will burst in with:
So what book changed your life most dramatically?
Who should win the Best Actor Oscar next spring?
Who’s your favorite fictional hero of all time?
What would you do if you were God?
And then each person, even the most retiring, has a chance to share her inner life and there is an almost spiritual communion. Her little queries are social magic. Sometimes when we break bread together Jesus shows up. It’s the sacrament of the quotidian.
My friend Marcia knows more about etiquette than Miss Manners. She throws these elegant dinner parties and sometimes invites Kathy and me. True she also invites everybody’s dogs, and I don’t know what Miss Manners would say about that, but who cares? At one of these events, Marcia seated me next to this sparkling, witty person.
Stephanie has two teenagers who are famous around here, and also two younger brothers. Her little brother Josh is tall and lean and handsome. He went to Choate and Yale where he excelled academically and athletically. At both places he was a hockey star, and now he’s some successful father, and businessman in Lake Forest.
So Stephanie was telling me that all through high school and college and beyond, when she met a new acquaintance for the first time and introduced herself, she got used to the same awe-struck question: “Are you Josh Rabjohns’ big sister?” Over and over again, as if the interrogator had just met a celebrity and were asking for an autograph.
Stephanie’s other brother is Christian, who was 41 years old at the time. Christian was born 10 weeks early with severe birth defects. Christian never spoke a word. He lived in a home for the differently abled for 39 years—Misericordia in Chicago. Christian was about the size of a 10-year-old child. His life was so difficult that his challenges have taken their toll on his body. He looked sort of like Benjamin Button.
But he is so charming and so full of friendship that he is universally loved at Misericordia. Stephanie was delighted recently when she introduced herself to someone she’d never met before, and the person said, “Are you Christian’s big sister?” as if he wanted an autograph.
All those years hearing the question “Are you Josh’s big sister?” and now this little person who spoke and never thrived in life becomes a minor celebrity.
So because I broke bread with Stephanie, I got a chance to meet Christian for a very brief time. A while back Christian had minor surgery, but something went wrong and he caught a terrible, terrible infection, which led to pneumonia. He was so ill that the chaplain from Misericordia came to the hospital to give last rites. The Chaplain prayed the most beautiful prayer: “Thank you, God, for Christian’s beautiful life. Christian taught us that you don’t have to be perfect to make a huge difference in the lives of everyone else.”
That was the first and the last time I ever met Christian, so I did not know him well, but Stephanie and that Chaplain made me think that he lived up to his name: Christian.
I didn’t know Stephanie or Christian very well before that common dinner party. But that evening when the bread was broken, it was a moment of grace and Gospel for me, a small sacrament of the quotidian.
Walk the way. Tell the story. Break the bread. You never know who will show up. Who is that on the other side of you? Who is the third?
Willoughby Mariano, “Reaching Behind Prison Walls: Volunteers in Inmate Visitation Program Bring Mercy and Hope,” Greenwich Time, February 10, 2001.
T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland,” in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1971), ll. 360–366, p. 48.