Delightfully Unrecognizable

Delightfully Unrecognizable

Third Sunday of Easter. Fr John Patrick Kenrick preaches on the way in which we are transformed by divine love.

Every now and then there is a story in the press about some secret tomb which is supposed to contain the bones of Jesus. There are many such fake tombs of Jesus, a fact that should make even non-Christians rather suspicious. It is because people are happy to peddle misinformation and profit by it (as in the case of The Da Vinci Code) that we should never tire of proclaiming the truth.

The Easter message is not just about an empty tomb. It is also about the joy that the disciples felt on seeing Jesus in the flesh. These post resurrection appearances are a key element in refuting the claim that the body of Jesus still lies buried in some obscure grave.

The Easter message certainly begins with an empty tomb but it only takes on flesh in that much more tangible mystery of real encounters with the risen Lord. In today’s Gospel Peter and his friends have returned to the comfort and security of their previous way of life as fishermen. Only a genuine encounter with Christ would persuade them to return to preaching. They are indeed convinced that this is Jesus and yet the recognition is not immediate. The resurrected Christ is much changed — is he perhaps much younger looking than when he was led away to be crucified?

I once attended a dinner at my old college. I hadn’t seen my fellow students for over 30 years. It was disconcerting that I initially failed to recognize anyone in the room. Everyone seemed grey haired and overweight. Then little by little recognition dawned. It was the voices that gave people away: ‘Ah yes, this warm and gentle voice must be Steven’s. That infectious laugh can only belong to James.’

It is not surprising that we fail to recognize people after many years. Sometimes people change even from one day to the next. In my novitiate I failed to recognize a fellow novice who had shaved off a very full beard. I think he was no less surprised than I at my lack of recognition.

We are creatures of habit not only in those things of which we are conscious. And one of the habitual things we do is to see people in a certain way. We form ideas about people and even keep a sort of mental picture of them in our heads too. That is why after an absence people sometimes seem unrecognisable. Maybe they really have changed or grown older, but maybe they have simply changed a hairstyle, a way of dressing. Sherlock Holmes was so successful at disguising himself that Watson was always taken in.

It can be quite alarming to realize that you are seeing a person anew, seeing them as though for the first time. So it is not really so strange that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him at once. If Jesus was utterly changed by the resurrection perhaps it also suited his purpose to disturb the mental picture that his disciples had of him. At the same time there is also that eventual recognition of the familiar man, the man whose miracles embrace the humble need for a good catch of fish, the man whose friendship is as familiar as the way he breaks bread.

Superficial changes can be a useful reminder of the possibility of inner change, the change that is God’s gradual possession of our hearts and minds. The desire to be possessed by divine love is there in every human being, just waiting to make us delightfully unrecognizable. It is that rather than familiarity which we should want not only for ourselves but also for others, whether we love them, hate them, find them irritating or merely dull.

Not only should we aim to become new and strange to the world ourselves, but to give other people too the chance to disturb the comforting little caricatures that we paint of them in our minds; we need to allow each other to change so that the unrecognizable Christ can be made manifest.

It is his mysterious presence within us, which gives to familiarity a true depth.

Readings: Acts 5:27-32,40-41 | Apocalypse 5:11-14 | John 21:1-19

fr. John Patrick Kenrick is Prior and Parish Priest at Holy Cross, Leicester.