Their Eyes Were Opened
Third Sunday of Easter
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus, himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
Luke tells us that the small village of Emmaus lies seven miles from Jerusalem. How long does it take you to walk seven miles? At least two hours–right?–for a fit, fast, focused walker. Longer for me, and shorter for a first-century Palestinian. Can you see the cut, bulging quads and calves of a first-century Palestinian after a lifetime of using the only available means of locomotion to negotiate the steep hillsides of Palestine? They’d be fitter and faster than a New Yorker who walks ten blocks to catch the subway every morning and evening.
Luke tells us that one of them was called Cleopas. Luke doesn’t name the other, but it must have been Mrs. Cleopas, right? Seven miles; two hours. “But their eyes,” Luke tells us, “were kept from recognizing him.” He’s always with us, but sometimes our eyes are kept from recognizing him in this brutal world where rock slides and ferry accidents and personal despair and the randomness of cosmic events steal away those we love with such cruel indifference.
Who could blame us if we fail to see the presence of the Risen Christ among us? And who could blame Mr. And Mrs. Cleopas if their eyes were kept from recognizing the presence of the Risen Christ beside them until it was too late, until he vanished from their sight like the Ghost of Christmas Past?
They lived in a brutal world too. They’d just watched an unholy alliance of Calculating Religion and Implacable Empire crush the life out of their dear friend, the herald of their highest hopes, in the cruelest way imaginable.
And yet there he was, right beside them, all along. Eventually their eyes were opened to the presence of the Risen Christ. Their eyes were opened via the Triple Agency of Word, Sacrament, and Accompaniment. He told the stories; he broke the bread; he walked the way with them.
He told the stories. Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” How would you like to hear a two-hour sermon from the Lord himself?
But that is the end and purpose and calling of every Christian preacher–to open your eyes by telling the stories. That’s why I’m here on this earth. That’s why you pay me a pile of money–to open your eyes with the Gospel story–and if after listening to me for 17 minutes every Sunday, you fail to see the Risen Christ, well then for God’s sake, go somewhere else. It might not happen every Sunday, but if it doesn’t happen once in a while, find a place where it does happen.
He told them the stories. Then he broke the bread. At the end of their two-hour, seven-mile journey, when the three companions finally reach the modest home of Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, they sit at table, and then, Luke tells us–now listen carefully to this–Jesus took the bread, he blessed the bread, he broke the bread, and he gave the bread. Took, blessed, broke, and gave. Where do you hear those four verbs together in that order? At every celebration of the Christian Eucharist, of course. Our eyes are opened when the bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord.
He told the stories. He broke the bread. And he walked the way with them. Seven miles. Two hours. Right beside them all the way, even if they were unaware. Someone came to you in your hour of despair or your year of loneliness and walked the way with you; you thought her name was Susan, but then you looked again, and it turns out to be the Risen Christ himself.
We tell the stories. We break the bread. We walk the way. The Triple Agency of Word, Sacrament, and Accompaniment. And our eyes are opened. So much for Luke’s lovely little legend. I’ll leave it behind just now, because I am happy to report to you today that there is a fourth way our eyes are opened–maybe more, but at least a fourth. The music, yes?
Do you remember how Salieri puts it in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus? “It is only through hearing music that I know God exists.” Music, no less than Word, Sacrament, and Accompaniment, opens our eyes to God’s presence among us.
So what do you know about Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria–RV589 in the catalogue of his sprawling collection? You probably know that Vivaldi’s Gloria–and any Gloria, for that matter–is an ancient hymn or doxology, more properly known as Gloria in Excelsis Deo, based on the angel’s song from Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom God favors.”
The Gloria, then, is the Mother of Many Familiar Christmas Carols, like Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.
Personally, I have made it a tradition in my house to use Vivaldi’s Gloria as my introit to the Christmas season every year. Some people go shopping on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving; I stay home and listen to Vivaldi’s Gloria. Vivaldi first, and then Handel and his Messiah. You almost never hear Vivaldi’s Gloria except in the month of December, so we are fortunate to have our eyes opened in the month of May by this exquisite piece of music.
Maybe you know that Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most prolific composers of all time. In addition to The Four Seasons, his most famous composition, Vivaldi wrote at least 90 sonatas, 500 concertos for almost every conceivable instrument, and as many as 90 operas for the secular stage. Maestro Vivaldi wrote at least three different Gloria’s, in fact. One is lost, for the moment at least; they’re still looking for it; the second is infrequently performed, and the third, which we are hearing, is the most beloved.
Perhaps you know that Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the eldest of nine children in a family of modest means. He began to prepare for the priesthood when he was 15 years old, and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest about ten years later; it took that long. Red hair ran in the Vivaldi family, so Antonio’s nickname was ‘The Red Priest.’
Antonio Vivaldi was a musical genius, of course, and famous across the length and breadth of Europe even in his own lifetime, but what’s interesting to me is that all this mellifluous splendor was created from and for a very humble stage. For much of his life, Antonio Vivaldi’s most prominent job was as the Violin Teacher at an orphanage in Venice; Antonio Vivaldi wrote much of this exquisite music while teaching orphaned teenagers to sing and to play the violin.
The orphanage was called the Ospedale della Pietà, literally ‘The Hospital of Mercy,’ and here’s how that remarkable establishment came to be. Venice of course is today still one of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe and it has been for centuries. For hundreds of years Venice has been fabulously wealthy and fabulously cultured and all Europe flocked to that saturated city to sample its treasures—art, architecture, opera, orchestral music, along with some other sensual pleasures. Not to put too fine a point on it, Venice was the Las Vegas of eighteenth-century Europe: what happened there stayed there.
It would probably not surprise you, then, to learn that the sex industry flourished in Venice. Have you ever been to St. Mark’s Square in Venice? Would it surprise you to learn that in the eighteenth century, St. Mark’s Square was, according to at least one scholar, a ‘pimp’s paradise’?
But famously and tragically, of course, the sex industry has terrible collateral damage, like many unwanted babies, including some who were deformed by syphilis, which made them even less welcome in this rich but cruel city. It was not uncommon for a young woman to deal with her ‘problem’ by dropping her newborn infant discretely in a canal under cover of night.
One of Venice’s singularly successful solutions to this horrible problem was the Hospital of Mercy; it was already 400 years old even in Vivaldi’s day. Young unwed mothers brought their unwanted babies to the Hospital knowing that the children would be cared for until maturity.
Sometimes young mothers would cut a playing card in half, or a coin, or a medallion, or a necklace, and leave one half in the crib, and keep the other half, in the hope that one day, when things were better maybe, she would return and reclaim the child she’d been forced to abandon when her plight was hopeless, and she could be sure, because of these half-tokens, that the baby was hers.
As they grew up, these young orphaned girls were taught a trade; they learned to be laundresses or lace-makers; and if they showed any musical aptitude, they were taught to sing, or to play the violin. It was probably no fun to be an unwanted orphan in eighteenth-century Venice, but you could do worse than studying voice or violin under Maestro Antonio Vivaldi, world-famous even then.
And the most remarkable thing happened: The Hospital of Mercy became a notable venue for superior musicianship. The rich tourists and cultured citizens of Venice would flock to the Hospital and pay good money to hear these girls sing and play, an ingenious fund-raising strategy for the Hospital.
The audience would be seated on the main floor of the auditorium, and the girls would sing from elevated galleries ringing the auditorium floor. The young women sang from behind a scrim of filigreed, semi-transparent screens, so that the audience could see only the shadows and outlines of these young women, presumably to shield their feminine comeliness from curious male observers in the audience below, though rumor had it that some Venetian gentlemen frequented the Hospital not to hear the music, but to find a bride.
So far as we know, Vivaldi wrote all three of his Gloria’s for the unwanted orphans of the Hospital of Mercy. When Maestro Vivaldi conducted this piece in the early years of the eighteenth century, all the choristers would have been women; even the bass parts were sung by young women. One of Vivaldi’s favorite singers was Anna dal Basso: Anna the Bass.
I guess I just thought you ought to know where this extraordinary music first came from. I guess it just seems to me that this music has the grace of God’s glad Gospel written all over it: a second chance at beauty and meaning for all these unwanted, illegitimate children, pressed into service to sing splendid doxologies to the unspeakable majesty of the Almighty.
“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” sang the angels above those shepherd’s fields on that first Christmas Eve: “Glory to God in the Highest.” And for what child did the angels sing this song? He was illegitimate too, you’ll remember; his mother was not married when she got pregnant, and she was still not married when he was born. He wasn’t exactly unwanted, but he was unexpected; scandal and gossip left an indelible mark upon his birth. And then, 17 centuries later, Maestro Vivaldi takes that angel song, and hands it over to these young women: a second chance at beauty and meaning for the unwanted and the abandoned.
The Risen Christ is always beside us, but sometimes our eyes are kept from recognizing him, so in the Christian Church, we tell the stories, we break the bread, we walk the way, and we sing the songs, because, as Frederick Nietzsche put it, “without music, life would be a mistake.”
And then our eyes are opened, and there he is, vivid as a flash of lightning: Easter, Resurrection, Grace, a Second Chance, Life Itself. Glory, Glory, Glory to God in the Highest.