The Courage to Disappear
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
April 21, 2023, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: Blakely Dadson
Last week, actor Rainn Wilson shared a video of himself from an airline seat—mid-flight. He’s wearing a surgical mask, as we do sometimes in public these days. He turns the camera toward a stranger sitting next to him who is absorbed in watching an episode of the immensely popular US TV comedy The Office. It so happens that Wilson is a star of the show as the character Dwight Schrute.
“When the person next to you has no idea who you are,” says Wilson in the caption. Can you imagine the conversation they struck up afterward? Both before and after the moment of recognition?
This week’s gospel story depicts two people walking down a road with a stranger who joins them. So happens the stranger is famous, but they don’t recognize him. Like the airplane story, it’s a setup for comedy, but it’s no time for laughter. All three are in the aftermath of trauma, walking away from the scene of public and personal horrors. Primary trauma, suffered directly. Secondary trauma, witnessed and absorbed.
The three of them bear raw wounds. Whatever we know and understand about human post-traumatic physical and emotional responses (a topic of much fruitful scientific study in our time), we may assume each of the three people shows signs. Cognitively, each tries to make sense of what’s brutally senseless.
While the couple is awash in confusion and despair, the stranger seems to have a jump on the meaning-making. He allows the unrecognition to remain, just as we might imagine masked actor Rainn Wilson asking, “You’re a fan of that show eh? How’s this episode?” All this unfolds on the road to Emmaus, and in our imaginations as readers, captivating us in part by employing an age-old storytelling device. We as an audience are in on the secret, while two of the key characters aren’t. When will the mask come off, and what will be their reaction?
I must say, however, that it is Jesus’s reaction that intrigues me most, at the moment of unveiling. He simply vanishes.
Years ago I made an international phone call to obtain a slim little book titled The Walk to Emmaus,* containing reflections on this story by a Brazilian scripture study group in 1992. A friendly woman answered, and I put cash in the mail. The group had explored a method of “popular Bible reading” using “walking together” from the story as a seven-step learning paradigm for engaging all of scripture. When I finally received this exceptional book, one chapter heading careened off the page into my brain: “The Courage to Disappear.”
The phrase struck me like a bolt. I had not connected disappearing with courage in myself or others, and certainly not with Jesus or God. Though I’d known God to disappear, I chalked it up to my own blindness. In my very darkest nights, I suspected God’s indifference, cruelty, or nonexistence.
“Where did he disappear to?” The question was asked within the Brazilian group. “A very poor person, who until then was sitting quietly in the circle, ventured to say, ‘I know where he went to!’” Some in the group even chuckled, and many expected him to say, “heaven.” But they stopped short when he said, “He went inside them.”
“Mary and Cleopas now walk on their own feet,” the group went on to reflect. “They no longer need to be led by a hand that gives them security. They no longer need someone to tell them what to do and how to do it. They have the orientation they need… what is inside them will be enough.”
In my role as a trained spiritual director/companion, I’ve learned to recognize and affirm when a person is “spiritually adulting.” One marker is a movement from over-reliance on external, hierarchical authority—toward the cultivated trustworthiness of both inner and communal authority. In community development work likewise, I’ve learned (and keep learning) to recognize empowerment and blossoming freedom.
What courage! What profound trust on the part of Jesus—to disappear. What courage also is called forth in the left-behind couple. And in us?
*Carlos Dreher, The Walk to Emmaus. Centro Estudos Biblicos, 2004. www.cebi.org.br
Dwelling Among Us
Discern in wisdom: In your own journey, how has God—as you have come to recognize God—disappeared? What was your initial reaction? How did your journey unfold afterward?
Act in love: Lovingly (not recklessly) consider a context in which you’ve been light and life—but may need to disappear in order for a more empowering story to unfold.