One of the more curious aspects of Christ’s resurrection appearances are the stories told of Him not being recognized at first. I have heard what seem to me to be silly explanations – that “the disciples were grief stricken and therefore did not recognize Him” – is one that seems completely implausible to me.
It seems implausible primarily because grief does not work in such a manner. Indeed, my own acquaintance with grief (I once worked as a grief counselor), is that we are more likely to think we see somebody deceased even when we do not. This would be the opposite experience as related in the resurrectional accounts. The Scriptural accounts of the resurrection reveal something of great importance – that of how we must know Christ (and one another).
Many times our knowledge of other people is based on something objective – their face, their height, the color of their hair, their weight, their body-type, etc. In many extreme cases we see someone less as who they are and more as what they are. In modern parlance, we objectify one another. Instead of encountering each other as persons – we frequently encounter each other as objects. Just a few clicks away from this webpage lies a world of objectification – the pornography that drives the internet (it makes some people a lot of money).
It is not just sexuality that makes others into objects. Many cannot see beyond the color of skin, or the shape of a nose, or the clothes someone wears. While doing graduate studies at Duke some years back, I worked for a while as a medical secretary at the University Hospital. I also worked on the weekends as an interim priest at a local Church. I began to notice that when I walked by parishioners who knew me on Sunday (in my vestments) I would be completely unseen as I was dressed in “civilian” clothes for my secretarial work. It gave me the strange sense that only by wearing a clerical collar could I be visible to some. It also made me realize that on Sundays, I was a collar, or a set of vestments, and perhaps not myself at all.
All of this has a certain legitimate aspect to it. I understand that a priest is also a symbol, that his vestments point beyond himself to Another and to a priesthood in which he can only partake but never make his own.
But it is also true that Christ was not recognized by those who would not see Him as person. Mary Magdalene failed to recognize Him (mistaking Him for the gardener) until He spoke her name, “Mary.” At this introduction of relationship, Mary saw the risen Christ for who He is. Others found that they recognized Him in the reading of Scripture and the breaking of bread.
Thus the Church continues to approach Christ through Scripture and the breaking of bread. We continue to approach Him as person – to know Christ as who and not as what.
Many people walk past us on any given day. We see them and yet we don’t see them. The same can be true of those who are standing or sitting with us in Church (I know some Orthodox sit). We see them and yet we don’t. This is always true so long as the other remains a what: “the man with the funny voice;” “the woman with the offending perfume;” “the one who disagreed with me last week at coffee hour.” These are all characteristics of “what”: people who have become objects and no longer exist for us as persons.
How do we know one another? Very rarely do we know another. True knowledge comes only as gift (requiring freedom and love) and must be received with cherished joy. It is partly for this reason that the icons of saints never portray them in profile (which would objectify them) but always face to face (in relationship with us). The Scriptures promise us that in the End, “we shall know, even as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But before that, it seems to me, we must learn to know in the first place.