Among the most beautiful of Gospel passages is today’s Gospel proclamation, the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). For many of us, it is the story of our discipleship, how our Lord quietly enters into our lives and leads us to a deeper encounter with himself, the Resurrected Lord.
Like many of us, the disciples on the road to Emmaus were perplexed. In conversation, they were trying to help each other understand. They too had been deeply affected by the encounter with Jesus, by his moving words of life, by his miraculous cures, by his fearlessness in taking on the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. They too had heard his electrifying words, “Come follow me” (Mt. 19:21). “This is my commandment, that you love one another” (Jn 15, 12). “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). “Whatever you have done to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). His was a wonderful doctrine: We are called to discipleship. Discipleship had to do with love. Love had to do with the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, the Lord identifies himself with the poor. Whatever we do or not do to the poor we do or not do to him. This is crucial for eternal life.
But with his crucifixion and death, all seemed to be lost. The disciples had believed in Jesus. They had left their work and their homes. They followed him. But the powers that had opposed him seemed to have overpowered him. The powers that killed him seemed to have killed his message. Perhaps, leaving all to follow him was a waste of precious time. Perhaps, his doctrine of love was false; perhaps, life was instead about self-interest and taking advantage of others. Perhaps, life was not about the Kingdom of God but the reign of self interest. Perhaps, the poor are not blessed, but cursed; there not to be loved. but to be exploited. Perhaps it is idle to dream dreams of eternal life when there is so much to do in this life. Perhaps, in the perplexity of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, these thoughts were part of their desolation. They are perhaps also part of our perplexity. And eventual desolation.
Now, as the Crucifixion seemed to have killed him, his message, and the hope they had placed in him, all of a sudden there were these women they knew who had gone to his tomb and found it empty. Instead of the body of their revered Master, they encountered angels who said he was alive. Just women carried away? But they seemed so sure!
It is in this moment of perplexity that Jesus approaches them. “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (16). This is important. Jesus would lead them to a recognition deeper than mere physical recognition. He doesn’t just blurt out, “Hey, it’s me! I’m alive.” He engages them in conversation, inviting them to share with him their story, their disappointment, their perplexity. “What are you talking about as you walk, and why are you sad?” (17). Of course, Jesus knew what they had been thinking and saying. He is smiling interiorly as he listens to their answer: “…Jesus the Nazarene: he was a prophet mighty in word and deed … and our chief priests and rulers condemned him to death and crucified him … now certain women of our company amazed us … they found the tomb empty, and had a vision of angels who said he was alive” (19-24). It is in this context that Jesus, still smiling within, explains all to them, “’Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things to enter into his glory?’ Beginning from Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (25-27). It may be what we experienced in dark moments of our lives when it seemed we had squandered our belief on him and had wasted so much time in cultivating a relationship that had died; what we believed in was ultimately idle and false. This was especially disconcerting in struggling with frayed relationships in our family, or with the nightmare of our finances gone askew, or with the lingering error of an illicit relationship. He whom we had followed and believed in was crucified and dead. It may be that part of the Good News of this day is that as your eyes are held, he approaches you today to lead you to deeper faith insight, a deeper recognition.
The long journey is shortened by the spirited conversation. But as they neared Emmaus, the day is spent. “He acted like he would go further” (28). Once again, as their eyes were still held, his interior smile. He would not impose his presence on his companions. He would give them opportunity to invite him to stay with them. “They urged him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is almost evening, and the day is almost over.” They wished for him food and shelter for the night, as hospitality demanded. But they wished for themselves more of this man’s light, as darkness demanded. On their invitation, “he went in to stay with them” (29).
Then, “when he had sat down at table with them, he took bread and gave thanks. Breaking it, he gave it to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished out of their sight” (29-31). The breaking of the bread would remind them of the when he had broken bread and fed five thousand men, not counting their wives and children (Mk 6:41); there bread was broken to still hunger. It would remind them of the passion and death of their Lord, preceded by his breaking of bread as he said, “This is my body given up of you” (Lk 22:19). Here the breaking of the bread was inseparable from the Cross. Bread was broken to overcome sin, selfishness, corruption, and evil, and to still man’s deepest hungers. It is the breaking of bread that we experience at every Mass, remembering him crucified and broken for us, when we become part of his self-offering in his passion, death and resurrection. After the consecration, we pray: “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son, his wonderful Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, and as we look forward to his second coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice” (Eucharistic Prayer, II). With his disciples in Emmaus, he leads us to the deeper recognition of his resurrected self in the breaking of the bread, of the salvific meaning of his sacrificial death and affirming resurrection, in which we now participate.
He leads us to this insight, and then he vanishes. This is part of his resurrection pedagogy. He leads us to conviction that he is not dead, but alive, and then vanishes, allowing us to say, “Weren’t out hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?” (32). Immediately thereafter, they left Emmaus to tell the other disciples how they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
It is a beautiful Gospel. As his disciples, we often journey through life thinking he is dead. But Jesus joins us, smiling within, inviting us to tell him our story. He warms our hearts listening, and connects our story to his. We are fascinated, and invite him into our homes. In the breaking of the bread, we recognize him. Then he vanishes, still smiling within, leaving us with the mission to share with others: he is not vanquished but victorious, not distant but present, not dead but alive.