Many of us first visited Grover’s Corners when we were in school. Do you remember this scene, from Thorton Wilder’s Our Town? Young Emily Webb has married her childhood sweetheart George Gibbs. In fact, when the play skips ahead to Act III, she’s born him a child and died while giving him a second. She’s buried on the hill overlooking town, and, as mourners depart, she begins to converse with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, also deceased.
One has to pardon Emily. She’s newly expired and not quite accustomed to it. She questions her mother-in-law, who has been dead for some time. Is it possible to return to the life she once lived, if only for a day, simply to experience it with, what one might call, the eyes of eternity? She wants to choose an important date, like “the day I first knew that I loved George.”
Mrs. Gibbs wisely cautions her to “at least choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.” Emily decides to return and relive her twelfth birthday, understanding that she cannot alter the day, only experience it again.
“Oh, that’s the town I knew as a little girl. And, look, there’s the old white fence that used to be around our house. Oh, I’d forgotten that! Oh, I love it so! Are they inside?”
Her mother is in the kitchen, receiving milk bottles at the door from Howie Newsome. It’s terribly cold. Howie says ten below by his barn. Emily’s father returns home from a trip to Western New York. Mrs. Webb reminds him of his daughter’s birthday. Mr. Webb pats his pocket, assuring his wife that he hasn’t forgotten. He calls upstairs, “Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?”
Entering the kitchen, seeing her parents again, Emily says, “I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything—I can’t look at everything hard enough.” But, abiding by her agreement, she can only say to her mother, “Good morning Mama.”
Mrs. Webb, in her matter-of-fact way, kisses her daughter, “Well, now dear, a very happy birthday to my girl and many happy returns. There are surprises waiting for you on the kitchen table.” Already, Emily can hardly endure the beauty of an ordinary, long forgotten day. Mrs. Webb continues, “But birthday or no birthday, I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow. I want you to grow up and be a good strong girl. That in the blue paper is from your Aunt Carrie, and I reckon you can guess who brought the post-card album. I found it on the doorstep, when I brought in the milk—George Gibbs…must have come over in the cold pretty early…right nice of him.”
It’s one more thing, which Emily had forgotten. Her mother urges her to “chew your bacon good and slow. It’ll help keep you warm on a cold day.” But Emily can no longer contain herself.
“Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.”
But of course the day must play out as it was scripted, so many years before. Mrs. Webb gives her daughter her own present, an item of clothing, wrapped in yellow paper. It had belonged to Emily’s grandmother, but she’s old enough now to wear it. She tells Emily that her brother “Wally has something for you, too. He made it at manual-training class and he’s very proud of it. Be sure you make a big fuss about it.—Your father has a surprise for you, too; don’t know what it is myself.”
“Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?”
Emily breaks down on seeing her father. “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She turns to the Stage Manager, the semi-divine figure who has sanctioned this trip in time. “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” It’s from eternity that Emily truly sees earth.
Judaism is rightly recognized as a religion of ethics. To obey the law, to follow one’s conscience, to hear the prophets’ call of justice, is faithfully to keep the covenant. Christianity was birthed in Judaism. It cancels none of the above, yet, in this religion, even ethics yields pride of place to perception. Our faith is founded upon an act of recognition. Everything depends upon our ability to recognize the Christ, just as Samuel astutely saw the savior of his people in David, that ruddy, handsome youth.
To see Christ is to perceive two things, each equally important: our need for a savior and the beauty of the earth, ready to be redeemed. Indeed, some have argued that Christ would have become man even if we had never sinned, simply because God always planned to enter into this beautiful world.
What does it take truly to see? When Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind, he saw more than his sighted companions ever had. He took in a beautiful world, and he saw the Christ standing before him.
When the hearts break open—sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in the face of splendor—we see. We recognize the Christ. This sight is the gift we call faith. As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light” (5: 8, 13-14).
Before returning to her grave, Emily asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
“No.” He replies, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a Ephesians 5: 8-14 John 9: 1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38