For a woman in Davidson, North Carolina, it was a disturbing sight.
Driving by the local Episcopal church, she noticed a vagrant sleeping on a bench outside. She called the police, who came to investigate. It turned out to be a false alarm.
The homeless man on the bench wasn’t a man at all.
It was a statue.
It was created by well-known Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz—it’s a life-sized sculpture of a man sleeping on park bench, completely covered by a blanket. The only parts of him you can see are his bare feet.
But look closer, and you see something else.
The feet bear the scars of crucifixion.
The homeless man on the bench is Jesus.
This artwork, “Jesus the Homeless,” challenges our perceptions of Christ, and our perceptions of the poor. It invites us to see Christ, even among the homeless. The artist has said that his inspiration was St. Matthew’s gospel: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”
But after reading the news from North Carolina, and looking over this Sunday’s gospel, I’m also reminded of what happened on the road to Emmaus.
I have to wonder:
If we saw Jesus today, would we even know it? Would we recognize him?
St. Luke describes the blindness of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
We can speculate why. They were probably disillusioned and confused, maybe even angry. Their great hope, Jesus, the one who had made the blind see and the lame walk, was dead. Worse, he had been brutally executed like a common criminal. It all seemed so senseless.
Maybe they had lost faith.
Maybe they couldn’t recognize what was staring them in the face—or who was staring them in the face—because they had given up. They had lost their way—literally lost their sense of direction. They were leaving Jerusalem, and the rest of Christ’s followers, and were headed someplace else.
But perhaps, it goes even deeper than that.
St. Augustine has said that he believes their eyes were closed…because their hearts were closed.
Preaching about this passage, he said that the whole story pivots around one critical moment. Everything begins to change once these disciples make the choice to invite Jesus to stay with them. What was missing, Augustine suggested, was what Christ had been teaching all along: compassion, charity, love of neighbor, even when the neighbor is a stranger.
“When you receive another,” Augustine said, “you receive Him… Let a hungry Christ be fed here, a thirsty Christ be given drink, a naked Christ be clothed, a foreigner Christ be taken in, an ill Christ be visited,” he said. “These are needs that arise on the journey. This is how we are to live in a world where Christ is in need.”
When the disciples on their journey welcomed Christ—a Christ without a home, a Christ in need—everything changed.
Each of us, I think, is on our own journey, like the disciples headed to Emmaus. Each of us carries with us our own uncertainties, our doubts, our worries. We grow anxious about our futures. About our families. About our jobs. About school. About where we are headed in life.
Like those disciples, we could easily be blinded by our anxieties, our angers, our fears. We can fall into despair and forget how to love.
But we need to remember: we do not walk alone. That is part of the beautiful, hope-filled message of Easter, the lesson of Emmaus. He is risen. He is still with us.
He walks with us on our journey. And he will stay if we only invite him. The Jesus who stands at the door and knocks stands, too, at the door of our hearts. Easter, this time of rebirth and renewal, is the perfect time to open the door.
It can be tempting, in these first weeks after Easter, to forget that, to take the Resurrection for granted. After a few days, we throw out the wilted flowers and the stale chocolate and plastic grass from the baskets and just get on with our lives as if it was just another holiday and it’s over. It isn’t! We just spent 40 days of Lent preparing for this feast—a feast that on our calendar stretches into an entire season of 50 days. This is the defining event of salvation history, the pivotal moment in our lives as Catholic Christians.
Do we recognize that?
Do we recognize him?
Again and again, Luke’s gospel reminds us that Jesus comes to us in startling, unexpected ways: as a baby in a manger; as a stranger on a road; in bread that is broken, blessed and shared.
We need to keep our eyes, and our hearts, open to his presence in our lives.
News reports indicate that he statue of the homeless Jesus, meantime, is slowly becoming more familiar. It’s sparked debate and discussion and garnered a fair amount of media attention. The artist took it the Vatican, where it was blessed by Pope Francis. Other churches have requested copies. You can even buy small replicas to keep in your home. The Christ who was unrecognizable in North Carolina, it seems, is gaining recognition around the world. This provocative work of art is inviting people to see Jesus in a different way—and challenging us to see those around us differently, too.
As Augustine put it: our world is a hungry Christ to be fed, a naked Christ to be clothed.
Let us pray to have eyes to see this Christ in all those we encounter.
And may we always invite the risen Christ to be our companion on the journey, as long as that journey may last, wherever the road may take us.