Emmaus: The Trip to the Past

Does this gospel story seem real to us or is it just someone else’s story??

To learn the answer, we have to place ourselves in the roles of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  It is Easter afternoon, and the two of you  just heard about the women finding the tomb empty. The guys checked it out, and sure enough, there was no sign of Jesus’ body. The idea of resurrection is appealing, but it seems highly unlikely—too good to be true. As you walk down that road, you are grieving, trying to hang on to the memory of the living Jesus, not the suffering and dying Jesus.  You remember every expression on his wise and kind face. You remember every inflection of his voice. You remember every gesture, every word and action of kindness and grace, and his powerful parables.

And the more you recall, the deeper you sink into grief.  Your hopes are gone, your life’s purpose is undone.  You are lost and overwhelmingly sad, and there is nothing for you now but to turn back to your former life and head home in defeat. That road to Emmaus is the road to your past, and although you don’t want to go there, there is no other option for you now.

Your conversation is quiet and subdued. You are talking to your friend, searching for explanations that can’t be found, for sensible answers to the terrible way the life and ministry of Jesus has ended. Your discussion goes in circles because Jesus was always a person of hopeful, happy endings and his crucifixion is neither hopeful nor does it have a happy ending. And yet, neither can you make sense of this story of the empty tomb.

Then a stranger, one who has been walking along in the same direction not far from you, moves alongside you. He matches your stride step for step, and eventually he discretely enters into your conversation. You kind of take to him and don’t mind filling him in on your conversation topic. You don’t recognize him because this is the resurrected Jesus. His body is more perfect than the Jesus you knew so well these past two years.

Curiously, the stranger doesn’t agree with any of your fatalistic and defeatist conclusions. Instead, he starts listing the prophecies in scripture to explain why Jesus the Messiah had to die. What he says to you isn’t easy to accept: here you are grieving unimaginable loss, and this stranger is quoting a dozen scripture passages telling you that he had to die. Maybe, you feel upset with him at several points and as you finally run out of “yes, buts,” you  realize that this stranger shows more belief in Jesus’ resurrection than either of you possess.

As you near your stopping place for the night, you realize something else. You realize that even though you have been arguing, this stranger’s words of hope and promise are filling an empty place inside you. You want to listen to him some more, and so you invite him to join you for the evening. He accepts your offer, and, as is the custom, you recline at a table and for an evening meal.

Then the stranger takes the bread in his hands and says the blessing, and, breaking off pieces of the bread, he hands a piece to each of you. At that moment you see that this isn’t a stranger at all. It’s your beloved Jesus for whom you’ve been grieving. And in the same instant you realize who it is, he’s gone.

The two of you look at each other in astonishment. You see in each other’s eyes that neither of you was imagining this, and you exclaim to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the road?” Who can eat or sleep at a time like this? You both gather your things together and put on your cloaks and go out into the night. You will risk making the whole trip back to Jerusalem in the dangerous dark just so you can tell the eleven what happened to you.

So, is this parable something that you can relate to, or is it simply a story that happened to other people? Is it possible that this very thing has actually happened to you?

Did you ever come to a Sunday service/Mass weighed down by a problem that troubled you so much that you couldn’t sleep? Maybe you didn’t feel like coming today because you felt depleted, exhausted or worn out.  Perhaps the problem is weighing on your heart and you are feeling suffocated by it.  You’ve got nowhere to turn to for help except to God. You’ve been praying that God will do something soon because things are getting worse.

So, you sit in the pew. You sing the hymns. You listen to the prayers. You wait for some word to be said that will straighten out the knot in your stomach. You do your best to listen to the Scriptures but it’s hard not to dismiss the gospel stories as having happened to other people in other places and not to you. You do your best to take the sermon to heart. Still the problem weighs on you. Please God, you pray, lift this burden from my heart. Help me in my hour of need.

You join your voice to the (Eucharistic) prayer, and then it’s communion time. You look up toward the front of the line, and there’s someone up there that has helped you in the past with a different problem. Maybe they meant to help you or maybe they didn’t even realize what they did. Nevertheless you’ve never told them how much their kindness meant to you.

(But then the priest breaks a little piece of the host off the large one and holds it up and says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to his supper.”

You answer, “Lord, through your grace and mercy, you make me worthy to receive you.  Now only say the word and I am healed.”)

GSJ: But then the pastor holds up the bread and juice and says, “Holy gifts are for God’s holy people” and you wonder just how holy you really are.

And as you think about these words, you see other people who have encouraged you in the past also going to communion. You watch all the people who care about, get up from the pews and go forward to receive the bread and drink from the cup. It dawns on you that here at church you are once again sitting with the stranger, the one whom you didn’t recognize on the road to Emmaus.

It dawns on you that, through the love and caring between you and these other members of the parish, you somehow have already recognized Jesus in them. You feel a glimmer of hope. The problem is still there but somehow you have more confidence that Jesus will help you find a way through it. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.

As you receive communion, you pray that you’ll have the courage you need this week to take Jesus’ love home with you like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who left the safety of the Lord’s table to go out into the night. You pray for the courage to go out again into your own dark night and face that problem with faith in God’s loving care for you. You pray that no matter how tough your situation becomes this week, others will see Jesus in you.  Take courage, as the disciples on the Road took courage;  may the piece of the resurrected Christ be with you along your life’s journey.  God forth with God’s peace in your heart.  Amen.



About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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