The great Alleluia after a long Lent, and it seems a longer Holy Week, and we have arrived. Only Luke tells of the travelers to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-35). The Road to Emmaus is a pilgrimage. Perhaps only seven miles, but it is a pilgrimage. The two disciples, and some suggest the second one could have as easily been a woman as another man, don’t seem to be going from Jerusalem toward anything spiritual, a holy place, or even home. They didn’t know they were on a pilgrimage. We very often don’t. And the English translation is pretty matter of fact about the going, although the Greek might suggest “going forth” as a more nuanced word choice. They are sad, trudging along, none too fast, and reminiscing about the pain and disappointment which the Crucifixion left behind. Again, we use the word “discussing”, which is pretty emotionless. Even “debating”, another option, hardly would express what two disciples fleeing Jerusalem would be saying. They heard the wild tales about the women who said they saw Jesus. They went to the grave, and it was, indeed, empty. But that didn’t prove anything. Perhaps the body was stolen, common enough, or the Romans reclaimed it, or the temple authorities hid it to prevent it becoming a shrine for Jesus’ followers. There was Lazarus, so maybe, just maybe. They must have been running over what they knew with each other, over and over again, as we do when something irreversible happens.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and the night before was the Great Vigil of Easter, and we heard reviewed Salvation history, as this stranger was about to do for these two travelers. And perhaps in the incense, the candlelight, the baptisms and renewal of vows, our hearts were moved. But now we are on the road, and what do we believe?
That seven mile walk, and for a walking culture that isn’t very far, was probably not a nice straight road, I-5 to Los Angeles, I-80 across Nebraska. It wasn’t likely to be a well formed Roman road. A worn dirt road, twisting around natural barriers, going up and down a little, winding through orchards and fields, filled with the scents of the Passover springtime, and screaming with new life, birds, insects, scurrying small animals looking for food. But it seems our two didn’t see any of this. Their minds were enclosed in one thing. Their Teacher, their Master, their hope of the Messiah was dead at the hands of authority, Roman and Jewish. And they were leaving Jerusalem, to pick up their lives. But how? Not ready for that yet. Talk it out. Get over the confusion and pain.
And a man comes up to them. The Persic version says he suddenly came up to them. And he joins them on the way. Yes, overtones. He who is the Son of God comes upon us unawares and joins us on our journey. I don’t think the author of Luke was unaware of these nuances. The risen Jesus doesn’t seem to be familiar to many of the witnesses of the Resurrection. Why? God blinded them? Perhaps, but perhaps the survivors were too self absorbed in the story of the past days. Perhaps that “I didn’t recognize you” because I wasn’t expecting you, so how could it be you? Jesus, the man, might be dead, or not, but Jesus as usual is just a little provocative. When he appears to these two disciples, however, they stop. Dead in their tracks, it seems, and sorrow overwhelms them. Telling their story makes it real. Not a debate, where points are scored as logic tries to find an answer. You must be a stranger, Cleopas begins, not to know the big event. The gossip about Jesus, who had great power, Jesus who was righteous, who was executed. We had hoped he was the One.
Probably by now both these people are putting in bits of the story, wanting to tell it all. And the stranger says, “Oh, how foolish you are.” I have read one commentary where “foolish” may have meant a kindly “silly” rather than a reprimand. No, these disciples still don’t understand all those grim things the Master had told them many times, about the necessity of his death. The death and resurrection of the Son of God was a stumbling block, and still is. For those who knew and loved him, it was natural to say, “Escape. Don’t die.” A good teacher, a kind teacher, can reprimand with a smile, a tender gesture, not always with the rod. As so he teaches them the whole of salvation history, cracking open Scripture. And they still don’t get it. Do we? Honestly, do we?
But what Jesus is telling them is a good basis for a theology to carry forth his teaching, to build a lasting church, but it isn’t the heart of Jesus. And these travelers aren’t looking him in the eye, so whether or not their inability to recognize him is another act of power, or simply the recognition that they have been worrying, as a terrier worries a rag, the information about what had happened, trying to make it logical in order to make sense out of it. All that is a distraction from what really happened. And that is blinding them from seeing the risen Christ Jesus right in front of them.
But we travel on with them, Jesus now ahead of them, and then these two disciples offer an act of kindness and care for another person, a stranger alone on a road at nightfall. They urge him to stay the night with them in a safe place. This is the pivot point. In their grief they put up a protective wall so as not to fully feel their sorrow, frustration, sense of loss. Now they are opening a crack for another’s well being. And at table they know him by his blessing and breaking of the bread. And the Risen One is gone from sight, but the bread remains. And they see, at last. Host and guest, present in body and in bread. They rush back to Jerusalem (after eating the bread, we hope). They crept out in despair, now they rush back in joy to Jesus’ community, their community. Did their hearts burn as he opened Scripture to them? Is that more distraction? Denial? Or the first glimmer of discernment. Formation in the Spirit takes time. Jesus always meets us on the road, teaches us in Scripture and in our hearts, breaks bread with us, goes ahead of us. With God’s help, we can invite him into our homes, our bodies, minds, and souls. We can learn to hear him, to see him and gently confess our own blindness, the reconciliatory recognition of our own frailty, our own vulnerability.
Perhaps the two were a little foolish, too self absorbed to see and hear, but it was and is these stories that carried the Good News far beyond the Apostles and the Seventy and the women and perhaps other witnesses of the crucifixion of the Son of God. We struggle with the stories because what we are told and the gifts we are given are beyond logic, but not beyond belief.
He is risen. He is risen indeed.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.