Easter and the moments that change a life – 71Bait

It’s Easter weekend, and what that means for you likely depends on a variety of things, including your upbringing and current spiritual leanings. As a child I saw it as a time to dress up for Mass and fancy brunches, but as an adult I mean so much more to Easter and the faith it represents, and so the season always involves reflecting on the history of that first Easter weekend , as described on the pages of the four Gospel stories.

This first Easter was a time of earnest questioning, genuine wonder, and heartfelt wonder. And whatever one’s beliefs, the stories from back then always remind me that our ordinary lives have the capacity for true miracles and unexpected revelations. The most sacred encounters often seem to interrupt life’s mundane routines.

There’s a phrase from Luke that makes me think of those rare, transformative moments in our lives that announce themselves before we fully understand what’s happening. It is towards the end of the story called The Road to Emmaus, a tale depicted over the centuries by artists such as Duccio, Caravaggio and Tissot.

Two disciples are walking seven miles from Jerusalem on this first Easter Sunday to a village called Emmaus. They’ve heard that the tomb where Jesus was buried three days ago was found empty and they’re chatting amongst themselves about all the drama, tragedy and now confusion of the weekend.

Suddenly a stranger joins them and asks what they are discussing. After a long talk with the stranger, they invite him to breakfast, and when he breaks the bread, they realize that he is the Jesus they’ve been talking about all along. He disappears and they are amazed. And yet they recognize that on a physical level they already knew that this encounter was different. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Invitation to Christ’s Entry into Emmaus by His Disciples” (c. 1920) © Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 19th century African American artist, painted his version of the Road to Emmaus in the 1920s. It is a dark and shadowy image in blue-grey, brown and soft black. This makes the encounter feel intimate and mysterious. But there is no premonition. On the left side of the canvas is the figure of a brown-skinned Jesus wearing a bright white robe. His presence sheds light on the rest of the painting, illuminating the stones around him and the figures of the two disciples, one of whom is reaching out to him.

The positioning of the two men at the bottom of the screen gives the impression that they are walking onto the screen and we can follow them directly. At the moment, the students do not know who this person is or how it will affect their lives, but as their words later reveal, they feel that this is a unique encounter. One that makes their hearts burn.

I’ve thought about this story many times because I know what it’s like to meet someone and I have an indescribable feeling that it’s a vital encounter, although I can’t yet say why. It’s hard to explain without sounding a little woo-woo, but sometimes you instantly recognize the person in a way that feels deeply familiar. It might move you to say, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.” And there are few things as sacred as feeling recognized and known.

Life is full of inexplicable things, and not having the right words or a complete understanding can make us uncomfortable. We love certainties because they give the illusion of control, even though there are so few certainties in our lives. And yet, those moments when our hearts or guts speak in front of our heads are often the moments that lead us to something vast and transformative.

Rather than fear what they could not yet explain, the two disciples acted to their heart’s content and guts when they invited the stranger to breakfast. It wasn’t until they ate together that they realized who he was. And of course that was just the beginning. Some of life’s gifts come from embracing the new encounters that we find unique without having to know or control which direction they might go.

Maise Corral's

Maise Corral’s The Reader (2020)

The contemporary Spanish artist Maise Corral often paints solitary figures or solitary couples in still scenes of life, as if time has stood still – the same kind of atmosphere found in Edward Hopper’s paintings.

In Corral’s 2020 work The Reader, a young woman sits alone in the middle of a stairwell reading. Light falls into the small niche and shines on her and the book in her hands. It has the feel of a personal haven. The woman’s back is to us, so we cannot see her expression or even the details of her face. But we can read the book over her shoulder. It has no words that we can see, but the page on the right has an illustration of the woman in the stairwell, the same painting we are looking at. She sees and reads herself.

Reading has always felt to me like art, as if it had a sacramental character, as a channel for something that can transform and transform us. Within the pages of a book lies the same opportunity to experience those burning heart moments. The encounter with the words forces us to see and study ourselves or our world with a new perspective.

Even decades later, I can never forget how I felt when I read Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War novel at the age of 13 nothing new in the West. I remember finishing the book and not really knowing what to do immediately afterwards. Something had changed in my understanding of the world and people, and it would take me a while to process that. This book offered truths about humanity. I sat in my bedroom with the book next to me and just cried for a while. Years later, when I was studying the British WWI poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke at school, I already had an inner landing pad for the terrifying beauty of those works and the world they revealed.

I wish I had come earlier on the incredible work of Ahmed Mursi, a 92-year-old Egyptian artist and art critic from New York. Mixing painting, prose and Arabic poetry, Mursi explores themes of existence and identity, home and belonging, and ways of knowing and the subconscious.

In a version of his 1999 work Crowned Head, Mursi etches an abstract figure from the shoulders up. It has a double face: two pairs of lips and noses, facing forwards and backwards. The two faces share a single enlarged eye that sits right in the middle of the forehead. The top of the head is cut flat, but where the brain might be visible there is a partial crown instead. The forehead is a scratch of lines.

I was impressed by this work because this unique eye reminds me of the Eastern spiritual concept of the third eye, the sight of a deeper vision. I think a lot of knowledge has to do with what I can only describe as a kind of double vision. There is seeing the tangible reality outside and then the second seeing inside. And I think we’re changed by second seeing. It brings clarity to aspects of ourselves and the world that are changing us.

The eye in Mursi’s work is always looking both inward and outward, offering heightened awareness and awareness of the present. And the crown on a brainless head feels to me like a reminder of our human tendency to think of ourselves as omniscient kings when inhabiting worlds we rarely control or even fully understand. In this version of the work, a piece of the crown has been scratched out of the part of the head above the wise eye.

I envision the key moments I have written about resonating with all of us in some form and having the potential to expand and transform our lives. But that doesn’t mean we all have the patience or willingness or courage or humility to receive them. Yet as we step into a season like Easter, filled with moments of unimaginable mystery and inexplicable invitation, I wonder how we could ever have room in our lives for all kinds of transformative gifts when we thought we had to fully understand them first .

Email Enuma enuma.okoro@ft.com

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