Are you getting it? I know that several of you were teachers. I myself spent more time behind the lectern in the classroom than I have behind the pulpit in the church sanctuary. It is safe to say that we teachers know how challenging it can be to teach. We carefully prepare a lesson plan or lecture, rehearse it several times, only to see on the day we deliver it that look of bewilderment in our students’ eyes that betrays their total lack of comprehension.
We try again. We brainstorm creative ways to clarify the content for them, to impress on them what they absolutely need to learn from us. To succeed here is one of the greatest rewards of teaching. To fail time after time is one of the deepest frustrations.
In our Gospel lesson, it is late afternoon on Easter Sunday and two disciples are walking together. Let us recall that at its root the word “disciple” literally means “learner.” That is to say, disciples are students. As these two go on, they are trying to make sense together of all that has happened, but to no avail.
They are sad and disappointed. They are convinced that what they left behind them in Jerusalem ended disastrously. Before then, they were full of anticipation, convinced that the days before the crucifixion of Jesus would have ended in a different way. They believed that they were going to see the salvation of God.
Let us remember the aged Simeon, who encountered the infant Jesus and declared, My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
Their hopes were shared by the remnant of the faithful in Israel. Jesus, to whom they entrusted their lives, seemed to have arrived at his last and decisive battle. After a long period of preparation, he was now going to manifest his saving power (Pope Francis). This is what they expected. But it was not to be.
The two disciples entertained a hope that is now crumbling. The cross erected on Calvary stood as a sign of defeat that they had not foreseen (Pope Francis).
How could this have happened? Here was the redeemer of Israel, in whom the fulfillment of all God’s promises was embodied. In his presence, it was almost as if they’d held it in their hands.
And then it was destroyed—and that not by just anyone, and not even by an unfortunate accident, but by the chief priests and leaders of their own people. How could it be that their own high priests could get the Law of God so wrong that they could condemn to death a man who obviously came from God? How could anyone even begin to comprehend this perversion of justice, this willful blindness?
The two disciples are bewildered. Their foundations have been shaken. Nothing makes sense. They leave Jerusalem to go elsewhere, to a village called Emmaus. But Emmaus is not a destination; it is a retreat. It does not represent a place to go, but a place to withdraw to. But since Jerusalem evidently failed to realize its destiny, there is nowhere else to go. And so the two walk together in sadness, directionless, without a destination.
They are in this state of mind on the road, when a stranger appears to them. His presence there seems completely fortuitous. It seems almost as if it’s one of those chance meetings that happen in life.
The stranger approaches them, eager to walk alongside them and join in their conversation.
The two disciples do not recognize their fellow traveler; his true identity his hidden from their eyes. He then asks them a question: “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” (Luke 24:17).
Note first that he asks and then he listens. Jesus is not intrusive. He does not impose on them. While he knows exactly the reason for the disappointment of the two men, he wants to draw it out of them. He wants them to narrate their experience. He wants them to find the words for it.
Parenthetically, psychologists tell us that unarticulated experience leaves it emotionally unresolved. Finding language that properly gives expression to unresolved emotion is essential to the healing process. An important role of the psychologist is to assist the patient in finding the right words to describe the emotion. Naming it helps to assign it a place, so that it doesn’t continue to cause chaos in the inner life.
No doubt this explains why one theologian insists that what Jesus is doing here is administering a “therapy of hope” to the two disciples (Pope Francis).
Out of this comes a confession: “We had hoped, but…. We had hoped, but…
Is this not a constant refrain in human experience? How many disappointments, how many failures, how many defeats are there in the life of each man, each woman! (Pope Francis).
Each of us can relate to those two disciples. We can all think of those ardent hopes that we once entertained. Indeed, one or more of those we cherished most seemed to be within reach, but then we were ultimately disappointed. Things didn’t turn out as we had hoped, and happiness once more proved elusive.
One woman once confided to me that she no longer hopes. When I asked her why, she replied: “When I refuse to entertain hope, I spare myself the pain of disappointment. And to refuse to entertain hope means to be pleasantly surprised if something good does come along, since the good is always unexpected.”
No doubt there are many like her. This is their attitude towards life. They are jaded and cynical. They need to know that Jesus is willing to walk with people who are discouraged, who walk with their heads hanging low. And walking with them, he is able to restore hope and courage to them.
Jesus asks the two disciples only two questions. When we are bewildered, we want certainty. We want an explanation that helps us grasp the concept, get the idea. But in the realm of the spirit, that is seldom how God works. God’s pedagogy is different. Seldom does he solve our difficulties for us. Rather, he gives us wisdom so that we can discern the right questions, and then discover the way ourselves.
Similarly, Jesus does not appear to the two in the splendor of his resurrection glory, thereby, in the blink of an eye, forever giving them certainty. Skeptics often ask why God, if he exists, doesn’t make his existence public and dispel all doubts? Make a public display, a declaration that cannot be contradicted.
But Jesus is not like the Hindu god, Krishna, who appears with countless arms, stomachs, faces and eyes, to convince the Prince, Arjuna, that he should do his duty and fight against his relatives for the sake of his kingdom.
Rather, Jesus wants the two disciples to see the truth of the events for themselves. That’s why he first prompts them to bring the events to language. We have already mentioned that this is how we work through what is unresolved in us.
After they give an ordered account of the events in answer to Jesus’ questions, he helps them locate the suffering of the Messiah in God’s plan of salvation. He does this by opening up the scriptures to them.
He shows them that the suffering of Israel’s savior did not nullify that plan; on the contrary, it was central to that plan. When God opens our eyes to this truth, then the Old and New Testaments fit together for us. As St. Augustine famously said: in the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; In the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.
The narrative then takes a turn. When we are sad and dejected, as these two disciples, we are seldom in the mood to entertain company, not to mention set a place at our table for them.
But it is clear that the two now feel very comfortable in the presence of the stranger. Indeed, they feel positively drawn to him. He cared for them. He walked alongside them when they were feeling sad and dejected. It is natural to want to be near those who care for us. That explains why they invite the stranger to stay with them.
“Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over” (Luke 24:29).
Parenthetically, the famous hymn “Abide with Me,” is inspired by this story, the story about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is what the disciple in all times and at all places wants. “Lord, it is evening time; please stay with me.” This becomes vital, especially during those long and painful hours of loneliness, which seem endless.
The moment of recognition does not come until the very end, when Jesus is at table with them. He repeats there the basic gestures of every Communion service. He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it.
We are used to seeing how the sacrificial life and death of Jesus is symbolized in this series of gestures. But is there not in every celebration of Communion a symbol of what the church should be (Pope Francis)? In one of our Communion liturgies, we pray, to the effect: “Now that you have fed us with the body of Christ, now send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”
At the Lord’s table, Jesus takes us, blesses us, breaks us—for there is no life without sacrifice—and then offers us to others (Pope Francis).
Is it not the case, then, that, nourished by the Word and sacrament, Christ prepares us to walk alongside those who are on the road to Emmaus today? How many of our contemporaries are walking aimless, directionless, without a destination?
Here we have to look squarely at the perplexing situation that faces us today. Many people have concluded that the church no longer has anything meaningful to offer them, and so they no longer go.
Perhaps the church appears to them too weak, too compromised by scandal, too irrelevant to their concerns, too cold, too morally rigid, too divisive, too hypocritical.
Maybe they see the church as a relic of the past, too out of touch with the issues of the time. Perhaps they see the church as fine for children, thinking that the church speaks to people in their infancy but not to those who have come of age (Pope Francis).
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, like those two disciples, they have left Jerusalem behind, and have set out on a road going in the opposite direction, disappointed.
But where does this road lead? Will it bring them to a place that only leads them further astray? Or will it bring them to a place of only partial satisfaction that ultimately will not fulfill them, only bringing further disappointment? (Pope Francis). Emmaus is not a destination, as we have already mentioned.
Since this is the case, the church should be unafraid to go out on the road and listen to the conversations that people are having. The church should walk at their pace, not going on ahead of them or falling behind them, but remaining close. It should listen sympathetically to the disappointments they carry in their hearts and allow them to articulate them.
But the church needs to do more than listening. It needs to know how to interpret, with courage, the bigger picture. It needs to know the Scriptures well enough to open them up to people and show them where their true hope lies. It needs to know how the Scriptures point to the crucified and risen Christ, in whom there is repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
As a result of their recognition of the risen Christ in the proclamation of the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread, the disciples receive new clarity, new direction, renewed conviction. They get it.
It is significant that they return to Jerusalem. We need to be a church that leads people back to Jerusalem, where they will hear glorious things spoken (cf. Psalms 87:3). There they will understand that they are not orphans in the world, but children of the Jerusalem that is above, who is our mother (cf. Gal. 4:26). They will get it.
Jerusalem turn out to be a city that fulfills its destiny after all. Beginning there, together with the other disciples, the two will be Jesus’ witnesses, then in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That mandate remains for us the church. Let us then obey it and go out and witness to the risen Christ to our contemporaries on the road.