Camouflage often is more effective than concealment. We see this vividly in an animal’s use of camouflage to avoid predators. Often, the things that are the hardest to see are the things right in front of us. Two common expressions, “missing the forest for the trees” and “hiding in plain sight,” express this truth. Sometimes the most obvious things are the most obscure.
When we think of spy thrillers, we think of master’s of disguise and vast concealment conspiracies. But the legacy of Cold War espionage was one of people and places hidden in plain sight. A recent article in the online journal, The Intercept, details operations in one of the most iconic spy centers in the US, hidden in plain sight.
For many New Yorkers, 33 Thomas Street — known as the “Long Lines Building” — has been a source of mystery for years. It has been labeled one of the city’s weirdest and most iconic skyscrapers, but little information has ever been published about its purpose.
Construction began in 1969, and by 1974, the skyscraper was completed. Today, it can be found in the heart of lower Manhattan at 33 Thomas Street, a vast gray tower of concrete and granite that soars 550 feet into the New York skyline. The brutalist structure, still used by AT&T and, according to the New York Department of Finance, owned by the company, is like no other in the vicinity. Unlike the many neighboring residential and office buildings, it is impossible to get a glimpse inside 33 Thomas Street. True to the designers’ original plans, there are no windows and the building is not illuminated. At night it becomes a giant shadow, blending into the darkness, its large square vents emitting a distinct, dull hum that is frequently drowned out by the sound of passing traffic and wailing sirens.
It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.
Hidden in plain sight, 33 Thomas St. is perhaps one of the most notorious venues for international and domestic surveillance. But it was not just places, but also people hiding in plain sight to evade detection as spies. In his book, Talking to Strangers, author Malcolm Gladwell recounts several high-profile Cuban spies embedded in the CIA who evaded detection not through brilliant concealment, but by relying on our human inability to discern a liar. They were hiding in plain sight.
So, perhaps it is not surprising that in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, His most devoted friends and followers often did not recognize him. Men and women who had been with him continually for over three years inexplicably failed to recognize Him standing right in front of them. To be sure, there was a quality to the resurrection body that was imperishable, undefiled and unfading. Yet, the gospel accounts make it clear that his appearance and his mannerisms were recognizable. Time and time again Jesus’ most intimate friends respond to his appearance with fear, joy, doubt, faith, uncertainty and downright skepticism.
Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener. None of the disciples [on the shore of the lake] dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. The disciples in the Upper Room thought He was a ghost, until he ate some of their food. On the mountain in Galilee, when the Eleven drew close, they worshipped Him, but “some doubted.” And then there is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. These men spent hours with Jesus and only recognize Him as He blessed and broke the bread at their supper table. If these men, who followed Jesus, ate with Jesus, saw Him day in and day out for three years, struggled to see Him, how will we?
We speak of knowing Jesus, loving Him, and having a personal relationship with Him — expressions which must seem like communal delirium to unbelievers. And though many professing believers never experience Christ’s real presence, they may go along with the narrative, but never see Him. What makes the difference? How is it possible to see Jesus? In a great passage on our “living hope” in the resurrected Jesus, the Apostle Peters writes.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8-9
The story of Jesus on the Emmaus road is remarkable. Included only in the Gospel of Luke, it is a recognition story, instructing and encouraging us in the hope of seeing the Risen Christ. Two disciples have Jesus right in front of them, yet they do not recognize Him for who He is. What makes the difference? What brings them to recognition? They made two journeys that day on the road to Emmaus. The first was journey of unbelief, of disappointment, of “not seeing.” While the second was a journey made in faith, joy and hope.
What about you? What journey are you on? Has your spiritual journey been one of disappointment and “not seeing?” Or have you seen the Risen Christ and had your journey transformed into one of joy? Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, April 19, as we examine Luke 24 and consider our how we too can see the Risen Christ.