David Chislett reflects on what we can learn on the way to Emmaus
It was near the end of Easter Day, the first Easter Day. According to Luke (Chapter 24), two disciples of Jesus were on their way to Emmaus, about eleven kilometres northwest of Jerusalem. But their walk had become a trudge. The bottom had fallen out of their world. Jesus of Nazareth, in whom they had placed their hope for a new and better world, had been killed by the authorities. He had such promise. ‘He could have called ten thousand angels…’ as the old gospel song says. How come he didn’t use his supernatural power to bring in God’s kingdom then and there? That was a question in the minds of many people.
It seems that these two had not been part of the inner circle of disciples. Most likely they were among the hundreds who heard Jesus preach and believed in him, who knew him from a distance, from among the crowd. But there they were: downhearted, despondent and without hope. But they became aware of someone else walking with them. Why didn’t they know it was Jesus? Commentators give all sorts of reasons. I think it was a combination of their grief, and the simple fact that they didn’t expect it to be him. They might never have seen him up close, anyway.
But, isn’t that a picture of what happens to us? Hopes and dreams crumble, communities disintegrate, businesses go under, people let us down, super funds lose their value, we get a serious illness, or we’re simply engulfed by an unexplained torpor. Things like these—and many others besides—trigger the kind of depression and fear that can destroy us from the inside out.
How many times, when we feel like that, and our walk has become a trudge, do we fail to recognize the presence of Jesus with us? Because he does walk with you and me. Even when we don’t recognize him, he walks with us because he loves us. We call that ‘grace.’ He walks with you; he walks with me. Just as on that road to Emmaus, he draws near in a special way when our journey becomes a trudge. He is there in our darkest moments.
Though they didn’t recognize him, Jesus managed to take their minds off themselves and how they felt. In fact, their hearts began to change even before they realized who he was. We know that, because later on when they looked back on the experience they said: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’ (Luke 24.32). There was something about his presence as he taught them from the Old Testament: ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.’ (Luke 24.27).
When they reached Emmaus, Jesus ‘made as if he was going further.’ Do you understand what he did? Instead of imposing himself on them he gave them the prerogative of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what had begun happening in their lives. He does that to us! We can close ourselves off to what might become a great adventure of faith, or we can—as people say—‘go with the flow.’ That’s what they did. Even before they understood exactly what was happening to them, ‘they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”’ (Luke 24.29). They invited him in.
You heard how the story ends. ‘Jesus went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.’ (Luke 24.30–32). They rushed back into Jerusalem to find the eleven, and ‘they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.’ (Luke 24.35).
Do you see what this passage tells us about the risen Jesus, how he makes himself known to his people? First, he comes alongside us long before we recognize his presence, especially when we are empty and defeated. He doesn’t stop walking with us just because we are finding it hard to believe.
Secondly, he opens up the scriptures to us. When we read the scriptures or hear them expounded, we are not just gaining intellectual knowledge. The risen Jesus actually speaks through his Word. He speaks to our hearts, our spirits. It is a supernatural communion. His Word expands our vision, heals our souls, and gives us strength. Did you know that in our day there is an unprecedented turning to the scriptures among Christians of all backgrounds because, to use the language of Vatican II, we actually ‘encounter’ the risen Jesus in his Word?
Referring to a teaching of the fourth century St Ambrose, Vatican II says that ‘prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to him when we pray; we hear him when we read the divine sayings.”’ (Dei verbum 25).
When was the last time you blew the dust off your Bible, turned off the television, and just began reading, maybe in the Psalms, or one of the Gospels, or a letter of St Paul, all the while asking the Lord to speak to you? Have you thought about following a system (like ‘Bible Alive’) or using the weekday Mass readings for your regular time in God’s Word? If you start doing that you will grow; you will be changed; your faith will become stronger; your heart will burn within you as you hear his voice.
Thirdly, he is still known to us in the breaking of the bread. High up over the main altar of St John’s, Horsham in the Diocese of Ballarat (the second parish I served as rector) is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus celebrating the Eucharist at Emmaus. Every time I looked up at the altar of St John’s I would be reminded of this Mass at which Jesus was—literally in his risen body—the actual celebrant. I would say to my people there that whenever we come to Mass we are not only joined to the apostles in the upper room on the first Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave us the Eucharist; we are also joined to the Emmaus disciples at the end of Easter Sunday who had the amazing honour of being the congregation at the first Mass of the resurrection.
Then the Lord ‘vanished out of their sight.’ What’s going on here? Along with many scholars of this text I believe that because Jesus had chosen the ‘breaking of the bread’ to be the place where his risen tangible presence would be encountered by his people, once the disciples recognized him there, he was able to withdraw the extraordinary and special grace of his ‘actual’ resurrection body.
There you have it. That’s why I love Holy Communion. It’s not ‘just’ a symbol. Jesus comes in all of his love and risen power in the breaking of the bread—the Mass—to bless us, to heal us, and to fill us with his resurrection life.
I’ve got one more thing to say. Many scholars of scripture believe that the encounter of Jesus with these disciples is included by St Luke specifically to teach us about the Eucharist. That is, while this passage has its deeply personal application (upon which I dwelt earlier) it is, in fact, a pattern of the liturgy itself.
The references to the Word and the breaking of the bread have to do with the life of the whole believing community, which is why Luke doesn’t omit to tell us that the disciples rush back to the apostles in Jerusalem. And to this day it is supremely as part of the apostolic community gathered for the proclamation of the Word and the breaking of the bread that we actually meet Jesus. Because of this passage of St Luke I have a special job to do tonight. If you are from a catholic background I have to encourage you to become as much a ‘Bible Christian’ as any evangelical you might know, recognizing that the risen Jesus comes to us in his Word. No more sneering at people who love the scriptures, underline verses, or learn texts off by heart!
And if you are from an evangelical background I have to encourage you to become as catholic as the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, recognizing the real presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. No more accusations of idolatry against those who would fall down in reverence before the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In what is rapidly becoming a post-Christian age, the Lord is calling us to be ‘evangelical catholics’ and ‘catholic evangelicals.’ Again, it all comes together in Vatican II’s Dei verbum, where we find this very important statement: ‘The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.’ (Dei verbum 22).
May you know and love the risen Jesus more and more; may your hearts burn within you as you hear him speaking to you in his holy Word; and may you never fail to recognize the love, the healing power, and the holiness of his presence in the breaking of the bread.
Fr David Chislett is the vicar of All Saints, Benhilton.