Easter: A Third Man Walking Next to Them

Post a Comment » Written on April 12th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (April 12, 2009) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each week during Lent, we have been sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine (see links below). The following Easter meditation appeared in the June 2000 issue.

By Dr. John Weborg

In a footnote to line 360 of T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland,” Eliot mentions Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica. At a point of physical and psychological extremity, Shackleton “had the constant delusion that there was one more member of the expedition than could actually be counted.” The lines of the poem go like this:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together.
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you,
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded,
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

Bill Moyers interviewed 34 poets in his book, The Language of Life. Robert Bly comments on his poem, “A Third Body,” which depicts a man and a woman oblivious to time, age, or place, mindful only of each other. “They obey a third body they have in common. / They have made a promise to love that body. / Age may come, parting may come, death will come. / A man and a woman sit near each other; / as they breathe they feel someone we do not know, / someone we know of, whom we have never seen.”

Bly comments on the communion the two people enjoy: “It’s as if a third body has come out of the invisible world and walks with them . . . the feeling (is) that a third man was walking next to them.”

King Nebuchadnezzar threw three young men into a fiery furnace. The king takes a look into the furnace and sees four – the appearance of the fourth like a son of the gods (Daniel 3:25). Luke 24 recounts the journey of two of Jesus’ followers to the town of Emmaus. They do what all people do when they have suffered the loss of a person most treasured by them – they recount the story of Jesus’ death detail by detail. Maybe they were second-guessing their roles in the debacle. Grief always makes us wonder if we had done enough. Anyway, the talking serves to release the person from one’s circle of life and to help oneself adjust to the way things are going to be.

Unbeknownst to them, they are joined by “a third man walking.” Bly’s “third man walking” or Eliot’s “hooded man on the other side” wants to know the gist of the conversation on which he has been eavesdropping. The incredulous disciples give a blow-by-blow account of Holy Week. But this is more than a news brief. They editorialize. Their disillusionment with God, with Jesus, with history in general was palpable. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Yes, and besides all this, it is not the third day since this happened (Luke 24:21). As the saying goes, he hears them into speech. They are not cut off.

Neither are we. When we are joined on our journeys by this “third,” most of the time unbeknownst to us, he will ask, “What are you talking about?” We may answer as truthfully as we can and he will not cut us off in mid-sentence, telling us, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” In fact, we do. The gift of the “third day” is the grace of the “third man” who always shows up at the right time, but never intrudes on our conversations too soon. But in time, as Bly said, we will “obey a third body we share in common.” And we will recognize him in the breaking of the bread. That will answer Eliot’s question: “Who is the third who walks beside you?” It is Jesus who was crucified and behold, is alive.

Editor’s note: to read previously published columns as part of this special Lent series, visit the following links:
•    Lent: Standing By Your Word
•    Lent: Tears Can Do Double Duty
•   Lent: Encountering the Divine
•    Lent: No Easy Easter
•    Lent: The Chagrin of Lent
•    Lent: Having Lost, But Not Necessarily Losers
•    Lent: Can It Be? Is It So?

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