This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 24:13–35:
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?”
They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
How many times do we hear of the road or the journey throughout our literary history? Being a fan of Lord of the Rings, it’s tough not to draw that parallel here, in which a walk on the road takes us from despair to triumph. It’s a common theme, and it even has a scriptural father — the story of Exodus, when the Israelites walk out of slavery in Egypt and spend forty years in despair and frustration to finally find their home in the Promised Land.
And these days, it seems as though we are all on a road that wends through despair, rebellion, and a loss of faith. The pandemic has upended everything we know about our lives — many have lost their jobs, some have lost their lives, and every one of us has lost our sense of normalcy and equilibrium. We have been forced to walk new and unfamiliar roads, and the things we thought we could rely on have been stripped away, at least temporarily, while we try to find our way to the end of a trip we never wanted to take in the first place.
We see this same theme in today’s Gospel reading about the road to Emmaus. Two disciples of Christ are leaving Jerusalem in despair, having been in the city for Jesus’ crucifixion. They are clearly lost, spiritually if not temporally, having expected a much different reality from Jesus’ ministry than an ignominious death on a cross. They expected Jesus to “redeem Israel” in the manner in which Judeans of that age demanded of a messiah — a restoration of a temporal kingdom in our world and an ejection of the occupiers.
This road to Emmaus parallels Exodus, at least in this manner — it is about human expectations failing to grasp the Lord’s will, and a loss of faith in His goodness, at least momentarily. It is a story about the movement from closeness to the Lord, then into despair, and eventually to faith and then to joy. This not only parallels the story of the Israelites in Exodus, but the road to Emmaus also encapsulates the whole history of salvation.
Despair has always been with us, because our predilection for original sin has always been with us. Our focus on control in this world and our inability to secure it for long is what creates that despair — the expectations that we can permanently order things to our will. But even so, the Lord has also always been with us, even when we ignore Him and insist on trusting only in ourselves.
Ever since the fall of Adam, the Lord has called us to return to Him. The Old Testament is filled with His call to choose Him over the material world, which is part of the Lord’s good Creation but is a spiritual dead end, so to speak. Over and over again, the Lord tells us through prophets to put aside the material to focus on the spiritual, especially when He establishes Israel as a nation of priests to bring all nations to Jerusalem for conversion to the Word of God. Over and over again, we choose to defy Him and put our trust in the grasp and control of the material.
And over and over again, the result is a “road trip” of sorts. The Great Flood takes a handful of faithful on Noah’s Ark while wiping out the arrogant. The Assyrians sack the Northern Kingdom and force the Israelites into slavery. The Babylonians do the same to Judea, but allow them to return two generations later. Further attempts to play at world power rather than fulfill the Lord’s mission results in occupations, first by the Greeks and then the Romans. A generation after Jesus’ crucifixion, the Judeans will get ejected from Jerusalem for good and forced into permanent exile.
It is on these journeys of despair that we can finally hear the call of the Lord. This is what happens to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, just as it did to the Judeans in the Babylonian captivity and to the Israelites in their forty years in the desert. It is only in their despair that they open themselves up to the meaning of the scriptures in a manner which unlocks understanding for them. When that happens, it unlocks a burning desire in their hearts for more, for our hearts were formed to seek the Lord and His Word.
It is at the end of this road that the two men come into joy. They finally recognize that Christ has been by their side all along, trying to guide them into understanding and joy rather than despair. His teaching reminds them that this world is just a journey for men and women to seek the Lord, and only in that quest will they find joy. It is in the breaking of the bread — in the Eucharist — that we gain the clarity and strength for this faith, and the nourishment for the journey to come.
It is still easy to fall into despair and mourning, but when we do, we should remember that the Word is our companion. We all travel on the road to Emmaus, and we walk it while stumbling and occasionally losing our way, but we should never doubt that Christ walks it with us as well.
The front page image is a detail from “The Supper at Emmaus” by Paolo Antonio Barbieri, date unknown. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.