As someone who reads and reflects on the Scriptures regularly, I can’t deny there’s always a desire to find a new approach or twist to these old stories we’ve heard so many times before. But sometimes the old, well-worn roads are the right ones. They may be corny or cheesy or cliché, a little too comfortable for having gone down them so many times before, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true — in fact, it probably means they are. I say all this because I don’t think I’m going to say anything new in today’s reflection on that wonderful story of two followers of Jesus being surprised by the risen Christ while on the Road to Emmaus. But the more I think about it, the more I think that that’s okay.
To refresh our memories, the story starts like this:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24.13-16)
We meet these two disciples of Jesus as they are journeying from Jerusalem to a small town nearby called Emmaus on the Sunday after the Passover. They are disappointed, dazed, and confused by everything that has happened. They’d pinned their hopes on Jesus; maybe they’d even been part of the adoring throng that had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as a king just a week before. But he was betrayed, arrested, and crucified. But then just that morning there had been reports that the women who had visited his tomb couldn’t find his body, but had seen a vision of angels telling them that he had risen from the dead. In other words, they’ve just gone through a great and traumatizing disappointment and are now caught up in a storm of confusion about what’s happening.
And it’s here where Jesus meets them: in between a disappointing past and an unknown future.
What does he do? The first thing he does is give them an opportunity to share; he asks them what they’ve been talking about and they tell him everything that has happened. Then, he reinterprets their story, reframing it within the words of the Scriptures: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24.26f).
The story ends:
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (24.28-32)
So, after hearing them out and reframing their story, he accompanies them to where they are going and stays with them until they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.” This expression has two important meanings, neither of which we should forget. First, the disciples recognize God as they are sharing a meal. Hospitality, the joys of eating with friends and family — these are powerful things in the life of faith that we ought not underestimate. But, second, these words have a strong liturgical significance for Christians: One of our two major rituals involves recognizing Christ “in the breaking of the bread,” and our eucharistic ceremonies use this same language of being at table, of “taking,” “blessing,” “breaking,” and “giving” bread. So it seems almost certain that the words here were shaped as an intentional allusion to the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. We meet God at table with friends and family, and we also meet God in the worshiping, Eucharistic community.
All of this a pretty perfect, if cliché, analogy for all of us. No matter where we are at in life, there’s a good chance we’re in a similar state as those disciples. We’re all in a confusing, liminal space in between the hurts and disappointments of the past and a future that we cannot predict and which seems a little scary. But God meets us there, right there in that spiritual no-man’s-land. God meets us, accompanies us, hears us, reshapes our thoughts, gets us to where we need to be — and generally, all this before we even recognize God’s presence at all.
Again, there is nothing new here. These are well-trod paths, but they’re still beautiful ideas. It’s nice to remember that God really is truly walking with us on these long roads of life, whether we recognize God’s presence with us our not.