The text set before us in the Gospel today has been described as one of the most beautiful stories in the pages of world literature. There is great artistry in the way Luke presents the story and gradually builds up the various layers of meaning.
The stranger on the road gets the two disciples to give their account of what has happened in Jerusalem. He then gives his own interpretation which leads to the revelation of himself in the breaking of the bread. The disciples hurry back to Jerusalem and repeat what Jesus has said to the other disciples.
So, we see that it is a story which revolves around different views of the same event, namely the death of Jesus. The disciples see it as a disaster while Jesus sees it as a fulfilment of the scriptures. It is also a story about recognition. As he breaks the bread the disciples suddenly recognise the person of Jesus and at the same time recognise the truth of his account of the events which they have witnessed.
Incidentally, there was no one called Cleopas at the Last Supper so we are drawn to conclude that Jesus must often have broken bread with his disciples. It was clearly a distinctive act and something that Jesus must have done frequently with his disciples so much so that as soon as he does it they recognise him.
There is also some interesting geography involved in the story. Jesus’ whole mission has been centred on Jerusalem. His ministry is a preparation for his definitive entry into Jerusalem where the events of our salvation are to be worked out.
Dismayed at what has happened the two disciples are returning home to Emmaus; putting distance between themselves and Jerusalem. But as a result of their encounter with the Risen Lord they turn around and go directly back to the Holy City where they are to await the final chapter in the drama and receive the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
That’s some of the structure of this account of the Emmaus journey but what is there here for us? Well, we are told that something prevented them from recognising him. Immediately we discover that we are on familiar territory!
We are all too aware that the same thing happens to us. How often have we failed to recognise Christ when he knocks on our door or comes to us in his many different disguises? How often have we rejected his message because it seems too improbable or demanding? How often have we failed to see his hand at work in the events of our daily lives? How often have we wilfully chosen to ignore his will for us?
The two disciples had, it seemed, lost their faith in Jesus —they were walking away. But Jesus with an extraordinary delicacy draws them back to faith in him and deepens it in the process. It is as if he explains the scriptures and the events they had witnessed in a way no one ever had before. And yet we know from reading the Gospels that he had himself explained the same sorts of things to them over and over again throughout the previous three years.
The difference is that then they couldn’t grasp that what he was predicting would actually happen. They were too full of hope to appreciate the reality of what Jesus was to undergo. But once those things had actually occurred, they are despondent, their world has collapsed, they are in depression and all hope has gone.
But it is at that precise moment when their defences are down that Jesus’ explanations given along the road begin to dawn on them. Suddenly their situation changes, they recognise Jesus and their hope is restored a hundred-fold.
Another interesting point in the story is that it is only when they show the stranger an act of kindness that all is revealed to them. We can only wonder what would have happened if they had not invited him in. Here again there is a lesson for us. How do we know what the results of a small act of kindness might be?
There is much in this wonderful story. It is certainly a miniature literary masterpiece, but it is above all an extraordinary faith story which will retain its relevance for all time. If I were you, I’d cut the passage out of my missalette and place it somewhere in the house where it can be read again and again.
The story of Emmaus is, of course, the story of a journey. And the story of our own lives and that of the Church is also the story of a journey —a journey of faith. In thinking about Christ’s journey it is perhaps salutary for us to think also about our own journey, our own pilgrimage of faith through this life of ours on earth.
I recommend that sometime today you spend a few minutes thinking about how God has prepared you to face the tasks and challenges he has set before you. Think about how his hand has guided you. Remember the things he has whispered into your ear as you have walked along the road with him. Give thanks for how he has guided you thus far and resolve to be more open to the promptings of his Holy Spirit.
This journey through life is not always rosy. Sometimes devastating things happen and like those disciples on the road to Emmaus we cannot always see God’s logic, we become depressed or angry with him and walk away. We go home with the intention of metaphorically shutting the door on the Lord. In the face of family illness or bereavement we frequently feel that he has put us through a roller-coaster of tribulation to no evident purpose, raising our hopes only to dash them again.
It is at moments like this that re should remind ourselves of the Story of Emmaus and tell ourselves that we are on that road too. Maybe it is not a mere afternoon walk of six miles, perhaps our journey is much longer and more convoluted. But it is the same journey. And on that journey we meet Christ in many different guises. And the moment of recognition will come. And the purpose of all the trials and tribulations will be revealed. When that moment comes the faith and perseverance that was sorely tried and tested will be vindicated.
Remember the journey to Emmaus did not end in that village; no, the disciples went back to where they started from. Their journey ended in Jerusalem. Our journey too will end in Jerusalem, but not the one in Israel but the heavenly one!
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket