Reflection – “The Emmaus Moment”
Lectio Divina – Third Sunday of Easter Year A – Lk 24,13-35
The journey of the two disciples to Emmaus is an example of the journey of faith to be travelled by those who have not seen the Risen Lord personally, and who must have recourse to the Church’s mediation to arrive at an experience of the resurrection. We, all of us, are among them. Going away from Jerusalem, the disciples were abandoning forever the illusions born in them as they followed Jesus. These illusions had grown stronger during the final weeks in Jerusalem. Their Master’s cruel death had killed and buried their faith and enthusiasm for his cause. The stranger walking with them feigns ignorance and pretends not to know anything of what has happened. They tell him about their disillusionment and sadness. Jesus loses no time and explains to them the meaning of what occurred in those days, opening them up to an understanding of God’s plan. Daylight was fading and their faith was fading too, but they offered him hospitality. They recognise the Lord as he shares bread with them at table in their house, just as earlier he had shared their sadness and shared the Scriptures with them. Once they know that he is alive they remember how their hearts had burned within them in his presence. They return, that same day, to the community to share with them their experience and their faith. All who see the Lord share their experience with the community.
13 That very day [the first day of the week] two of the disciples were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the Eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.
After the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and the first report of the resurrection of Jesus (24,1-11), which was not believed, Luke, alone among the evangelists, relates the episode of Emmaus. We should not overlook the starting point – Jesus is alive but his disciples are unable to believe it. They persist in looking for him among the dead. They are surprised when they find the tomb open and empty. Nobody takes seriously the story of the women who had gone to visit the grave (24,188.8.131.52).
This account is one of the most powerful in the whole of the New Testament. It has a formal structure that is easily recognisable. The story opens by introducing the people involved, two disciples on their way to Emmaus on the very day of Easter (24,13-14). As they go along they are talking about what has happened in Jerusalem (24,15-29). A stranger appears. The dialogue with him dominates the account (24,17-27.29b) as the narrator gives the word to the protagonists. The stranger relates his message to the conversation of his fellow-travellers. It is not enough to know what has happened in Jerusalem if they are not able to see it in the light of God’s plan. They reach their house in Emmaus and during supper (24,30-32) they recognise him as he breaks bread for them, and he disappears immediately. A gesture without words opens their eyes, when even his presence and his explanation of Scripture had failed to do so. (24,30-32). The episode closes with the return of the two new witnesses to Jerusalem (24,33-35). An encounter with the Risen Lord should always finish with the witnesses returning to the community.
Lack of belief led the disciples away from Jerusalem. As they walk towards Emmaus they are talking about what had happened in Jerusalem. The more they talk, the further they get, in reality and in spirit, from Jerusalem and from all that happened there. They were witnesses of all that had happened, but not yet witnesses of the Risen Lord.
Jesus, still not recognised, shares the road with them because he wants to take part in their conversation. He is concerned with what concerns them (24,15). They did not and could not recognise him – their eyes were incapable of recognising him (24,16). How was it possible that they, who had hoped for so much from Jesus (cf 24,18-24) were unable to realize how close they were to him? Eyes that saw him when he was alive but now know that he is dead are incapable of believing that he is risen. They need to see something more, something new (cf 24,31). The stranger seems not to know what they are talking about, but he notices the sadness which afflicts his fellow-travellers (24,17). Cleopas cannot understand how the stranger can be unaware of what has happened (24,17), and he proceeds to inform him: Jesus of Nazareth, who they thought was the authentic man of God (24,19), had been executed (24,20); his death had buried all their hopes (24,21). Some women continued to say that they had found his tomb empty (24,22-23) but nobody had seen him alive, and nobody could believe it (24,24).
The stranger tells them that, because they do not see what has happened in the light of God’s will, they do not understand in their hearts what they say with their lips (24,25). They continue their journey towards Emmaus and he leads them on a new journey through the Scriptures. The destiny of Jesus was already foretold there, that he should suffer and so enter glory (24,27). They reached Emmaus and, with a new understanding of what had happened and with new heart (cf 24,32), they invite the stranger who accompanied them to stay with them. It was nearly evening and the day was almost over (24,29). Jesus, still unrecognised, could not leave them alone, precisely because they had not yet recognised him. The stranger became their guest (24,30a). Their fellow-traveller became their companion at table (24,30b). The bread blessed and shared is the gesture that opens their eyes and their hearts – who but the Lord could give them the blessed bread (24,31)?
As soon as he was recognised, the Risen Lord disappeared. When we know that he is alive, his presence is no longer necessary. But as soon as they knew it, they felt compelled to return quickly, by night, to the city which had been the burial place of their faith, and to the community they had abandoned (24,33). There they will receive the report of the faith of the community: “It is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” (24,34).
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
This gospel passage is one of the most beautiful in the whole bible. It offers a description of Christian life that is surprisingly relevant in our day. We can all see ourselves in those two disciples. On the day of Resurrection, when Jesus was alive, and had already allowed himself to be seen by some disciples, they were returning to their homes and their former occupations, totally disillusioned. The sense of failure, the disillusionment that gripped them as they walked along, alone and without hope, is a symbol of the present-day situation of many Christians. We have celebrated the triumph of Jesus over death. We know that he lives with God forever. We believe that he intercedes for us and that he is preparing a place for us. And yet, we continue to let our fears and doubts increase and to nurture our disillusionment.
Like those disciples on the way to Emmaus we carry sorrow in our hearts and darkness in our eyes, because life, even Christian life, has not satisfied all the hopes we had when we decided to follow Jesus. Death has come near us so many times and we live always in dread of it. We find it very easy to understand those two disciples who had lost hope in Jesus. They thought he was dead and were returning to their homes and their previous occupations. In the same way, we find excuses for our own tiredness in living the life of faith every day and for our giving up on following him.
It is not for nothing that we recognize ourselves in those two sorrowful disciples. We nourish the hope that the Risen Christ may walk a bit of the road with us, and stay with us and be our companion. Like the two disciples of Emmaus, we would not have to recognise him immediately for our hearts to burn within us. It would be enough to understand that what has happened to us in life and what still happens, is part of a plan foreseen and willed by God. Trying to understand our lives, and his, in the light of God’s Word will enable us to find joy and peace, to return to the community and to give witness.
The fact is that, like those disciples, we too can pass hours talking about Jesus, without feeling enthused by him. Like them, we are able to tell the story of his life and his miracles and sometimes it makes no real difference in our lives. It is comforting that the Risen Lord does not demand that we recognise him before he begins to accompany us. This is true today as it was at Emmaus. He does not give up because of our disillusionment, nor does he abandon us when we abandon him. It does not matter that we are slow to believe or that our hearts are cold. If we allow him he will return and draw near to us, explain to us what we do not understand, and restore our lost enthusiasm and our faith. If the Risen Lord accompanied the disciples of Emmaus who were leaving him, we have reason to hope that one day he will feign ignorance of our mistakes and generously restore our enthusiasm.
The disciples still had not recognised him when they invited him to stay with them. The day was nearly ended and their faith had still not been aroused, but they offered the hospitality of their house to the stranger. They shared their table and their bread with the one who had shared their journey and their conversation. While he was at supper he broke the bread and then they knew that the one they had invited was the Lord, the unknown traveller was in fact the Risen Jesus. They had seen him. It was true, he was alive. Then and now, the Eucharist, the chance meeting between travellers and the memory of the Lord which forces them to recognize him, is the privileged place for knowing the Risen Christ. To know that he is alive and close to us, we need only share his table and receive his bread.
When we know that he is alive, we don’t need his presence. The experience of the Risen Christ is not something to be enjoyed for an instant, but a conviction to be proclaimed. When he is recognised, Jesus becomes invisible. Knowing that he is alive is more important than holding him by the hand. When we perceive his presence even once, there is no reason to feel sad because of his absence. Anyone who has been sorrowful and feeling lost, and then finds himself even once in the presence of the Risen Christ, will never forget his good fortune. Walking with Jesus makes our hearts burn and helps us to understand the ways of God.
Since they could not hide their joy nor keep quiet about their experience, they returned that night to Jerusalem to communicate to the other disciples their wonderful adventure. We see from them the basic steps of the journey we must travel today if we want to recover the certainty that Christ is alive and the joy of knowing that he is close to us.
1.The disciples from Emmaus did not let their companion go, even though he was unknown to them. They offered him food and shelter. This in itself was not anything out of the ordinary but it led to an extraordinary experience. The invited guest turned out to be their Lord and Saviour. Could it be that we fail to find God, not because we do not sense his presence, nor because we fail to recognise him as he walks alongside us on the road, but because we fail to offer him hospitality in our homes, we do not create space for him in family or community life, we do not offer him our homes and our intimate friendship? Is that why Jesus continues to pass us by? We ought to reflect on the fact that Jesus did not make himself known during the journey, nor while he explained the Scripture, but in their home, around the table. The lesson is obvious. Let us pray that God will remain with us, that night will not fall on our homes and on our faith without his sharing the table with us. If we do not allow Jesus to become our intimate friend, in our homes and in our families, we will not recognise God. To know God we must invite Jesus into our lives and pray that he remain with us. It could be that our night is already falling.
2.The disciples from Emmaus recognised Jesus in their guest as he broke bread. Their hearts were closed and their intelligence slow until they saw the gesture of Jesus. The distribution of bread took them out of their ignorance and renewed their faith and enthusiasm. They remembered the gesture well – it was the last thing he had done the night before he died. They knew then that their Master was really alive. Nobody else blessed bread and broke it before offering it the way he did. As long as he has someone who will share the blessed bread in his name, Jesus will continue to show himself alive to his disciples, opening their eyes and their understanding, and filling their hearts with fervour. It is enough for us to see him breaking bread for us to know that he is with us. If we do not want to lose the Risen Christ, we must not lose the moment when Christ breaks bread for us.
3.The disciples from Emmaus returned to Jerusalem when they knew that the Lord was alive. They left their supper uneaten and the house unattended. They did not want to sleep that night until they had told the others what had happened. They, who previously were distancing themselves and felt so completely disillusioned, were now hurrying back to tell of their experience. No one who has seen the Lord can keep quiet about it. Anyone who knows that Jesus is alive, because he has shared bread with him, cannot but share his experience with others. This obliges us to live our faith in common. The house that bears witness to the Risen Lord is the Christian community. If anyone tries to be a Christian alone or in private, he risks losing sight of Jesus and ceasing to believe that he is alive.
We should not complain, therefore, that we have not seen the Lord. We have no right to feel cheated by him, if we have not done our personal journey to Emmaus. The Risen Jesus can wait for us on any road to explain the Scriptures and restore our faith and courage. But let’s not forget: until we are completely won over by him, and return to the community to bear witness to him, we will not really know that we have found him.
III. Prayer: I desire that what I have heard be done in me.
Give me, Lord, a companion on my journey who will share the disillusionment and tiredness that my life as a disciple has produced in me. Your cross continues to bury my weak faith. Give me, Lord, someone I can trust as I walk with him towards Emmaus. Come yourself and walk with me as I go along. It is sad to know about you and not know that you are with me. Explain to me again your life and God’s plan. Read the Scriptures to me and open, first my heart and then my eyes, to your Word.
In that way I will be able, at the end of the day of your Resurrection, to invite you into my home to share my table, even before I recognise you. Then I will recognise you when you bless bread and break it in my house. I will know that you are alive when I see you presiding at my table and in my life, when I see you offering me your bread and your life. I will live to proclaim my joy and your life to all. And I will return to the life of the community with a heart that burns and eyes that have seen you and cannot forget you.