Easter Wednesday 2015

Predictably, immigration has turned out to be one of the major sub-themes of the General Election debate, and I wouldn’t mind betting that today’s gospel, Luke 24.13–35, is being quoted by many in support of the notion of welcoming the stranger in our midst.

The Emmaus story is challenging on many levels. We are all familiar with ‘Emmaus moments’ when the veil over the ordinary is lifted and we see, as for the first time, the true meaning of something. Broken bread and a shared cup become the Body and Blood of Christ and we understand, as never before, what that means. Someone speaks, and the words touch the very depths of our being. We long for Jesus to explain the scriptures to us, and then realise that he does so every time we open them or hear them read. He accompanies us every step of the way, no matter how long or lonely our way may seem. The stranger, the alien, is God in disguise.

Here this morning is an illustration of the Emmaus story that presents another kind of challenge. We are used to hearing about the prejudices of our ancestors, their anti-semitism and their hatred of those who were different. Our rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus is often regarded as a modern phenomenon, but I have a small collection of medieval images that make me question that. Here are Jesus and the two disciples breaking bread at Emmaus, and all of them are wearing the characteristic Judenhut or Jewish hat of the time. It is all the more remarkable because the illustration is thought to come from Norfolk, perhaps even Norwich, and is dated about 1190.

Supper at Emmaus


















Why is that remarkable? A mere forty years or so earlier the spurious story of William of Norwich had stirred up virulent anti-semitism. A hundred years later such anti-semtism was a major factor in the expulsion of Jews from England. But here, in 1190, we find an illuminator who has no hesitation in portraying Jesus as a Jew among Jews. It is worth thinking about that.

We are often quick to make assumptions; quick to condemn. Just as the Emmaus gospel encourages us to welcome the stranger in our midst, so its portrayal through the ages encourages us to examine more critically the attitudes we have inherited from the past. Immigration is something we must all think about and find a just and fair response to. Our starting-point might usefully be that of Cleopas: open about our hopes and fears, and ready to be convinced.


7 thoughts on “Easter Wednesday 2015”

  1. This was interesting, Dame Catherine. I followed your link to Wikipedia and read that jews were being slaughtered in 1190 in Norwich, making these hats even more startling. The illustrator really seems to have been making a point. Inspiring. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for this Sister, yes, lots of food for thought. The Getty Museum where this Vita Christi is kept attributes the illuminations in this manuscript to York in 1190, so even more startling an image in view of the terrible massacre and suicide of Jews in Clifford’s Tower in March 1190.

    The disciples and Jesus are wearing the hats too in the previous folio, http://digitizedmedievalmanuscripts.org/paul-getty-museum/attachment/31228001/ Presumably this was to suggest that disguise prevented Jesus from being recognised by them at first. The current manuscript was compiled & written in East Anglia, probably Norwich, in 1490, using the 51 twelfth century illustrations which it’s thought may have been from a devotional picture book with no text. This expanded version added text and another 57 images, spanning the history of the world from the fall of the rebel angels to the Apocalypse. You got your money’s worth in those days! On a positive note, the Jews were very quickly re-established in York after 1190, so they must have had supporters in the community, until they were expelled again in 1290.

    • Thank you. The file information, which I meant to put at the foot of my post as usual, is as follows: Supper at Emmaus; Unknown; Norfolk [perhaps] (written) East Anglia England York [perhaps] (illuminated) Northern England; illumination about 1190; written about 1490; Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment; Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.); Ms. 101, fol. 87. I used another from the series in last year’s post (as you probably recognized). The situation of the Jews in medieval England interests me because of how it compares and contrasts with the situation in the Iberian Peninsula, but it is this acceptance of the Jewishness of Jesus that I find most striking.

  3. thanks are to you really for sharing all these wonderful manuscripts and their stories. As you say, so striking to find these images represented at a time of such turmoil for Jews in England. And in the rest of Europe. I know about York and Norwich but nothing about what happened to Jews in the Iberian Peninsula as you do. Hope you can share more about that with us in your blogs. As ever, you introduce us to new riches. How you do this every day is beyond me!

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