Many of us take great pride in our ability to recognize faces. Or it may happen that we are on a street or highway and we come upon a particular turn in the road or a distinctive landmark, and we realize that we have been in that place before. At times like these, floods of memories return. What seemed unfamiliar is now familiar. Our memory works so that we can say: “I know it when I see it.”
But there are also occasions when we do not recognize everything or everyone we might. Perhaps our memory fails us, or the original impression was not strong enough for us to recall easily. Or it might be that people or places change so much for us that it is less a case of recognizing than it is of being introduced to them anew. The readings for this Sunday are examples of the latter. The people just did not appear to know what or who it was they were seeing.
We might wonder why so many of Jesus’ contemporaries failed to recognize in him the messiah whom they so ardently awaited. Surely Jesus’ life and works set him apart from the rest. Surely his words seared their hearts, never to be forgotten. But that was not the case. It took Peter, emboldened by the Pentecost experience, to interpret earlier traditions for them so as to demonstrate their fulfillment in Jesus. And even then, not everyone “saw it.”
The Gospel recounts a second story about a lack of recognition. There we find two disciples of Jesus, who presumably had known him during his public ministry and believed that he was “a prophet mighty in deed and word.” They now walked seven miles with him while he interpreted the earlier traditions for them. How could they not “see it”? But they didn’t.
Both of these accounts show that people do not always know it when they see it. This is not simply because their memory has failed them. In the first instance, the people did not recognize Jesus because he did not fit their preconceived expectations. Peter had to draw lines of correspondence between Jesus and earlier religious traditions. We are left to wonder whether those who heard Peter “saw it.” Did they have the faith needed to accept what they had not initially understood?
On the road to Emmaus, it was the risen Jesus himself who did the explaining. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” And still they did not know who he was. It was only when “he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
Do we know it when we see it? Are we open to understanding the Scriptures in new ways? Do we recognize his presence among us in our eucharistic breaking of the bread?