There is a recognition problem on the road to Emmaus. Jesus comes near to Cleopas and his companion and walks with them on the way, but they don’t recognize him. The text doesn’t say why they didn’t recognize him. They are, or had been, followers of Jesus, they’d walked many a road like this with him before, but they don’t recognize him this time around. Maybe he looked different. Maybe he sounded different. Maybe death and resurrection have a way of changing you.
But the recognition problem could have been solved easily. All Jesus had to do was say, “Hey, it’s me!”
Why didn’t he do that? Is he just messing with them? Sure, the delayed recognition makes for a better story, in fact that’s what drives this narrative forward. But wouldn’t it have been better for Cleopas and companion to have known sooner? In fact, wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had appeared to them back in Jerusalem a little earlier on this Easter day, and saved them the bother of escaping the city and heading out on that dusty road to Emmaus?
Or, did they need the journey? Perhaps the biggest challenge on the road to Emmaus is not the challenge of recognition. Perhaps it is the challenge of transformation. And transformation, especially the important transformations in life that take us through the valley of death to the new life that awaits on the other side, these journeys take time. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.
This is an Easter story after all. Cleopas and companion began their Holy Week with Jesus in Jerusalem, where they experienced the greatest trauma of their lives. They stood by helplessly as their friend and leader was betrayed, tortured, wrongly convicted and crucified. They fled the scene and went into hiding, locking the doors behind them. They had to wait there the whole Sabbath day, grieving, fearful that any moment soldiers might break down the door and arrest them. Then on the next day, they’d had enough, they decided to flee, leaving the pain and trauma of Jerusalem behind. They take the road to Emmaus. And as they journey, they start to process what has happened, they talk, still overwhelmed by sadness, grief and despair. And in that frazzled state, Jesus comes alongside and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him.
He begins as any good counsellor might, asking them to tell him what happened, ‘why are you so sad?’ And so they do. There’s something about walking and talking that is good for us, that helps us to process our emotions and share our stories. Jesus listens for a few kilometers, and then he speaks. He begins to interpret the scriptures for them, he starts to open up the story of their lives, to give them the back story, to put it in context, to explain why it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things. And as he speaks, their hearts begin to burn within them.
Has your heart ever burned within you? What does that even mean? It certainly means that we’re no longer just in our heads the way we often are. We’re not talking about logical arguments here. We’re talking about new insights that move us in some way, that arouse a passion deep within us, whether that passion is anger or joy or beauty or love or a thirst for justice, or maybe an emotion that we can’t even articulate. To have your heart burn within you is to be moved, to feel something, it’s the beginning of a transformation deep within your soul that will never leave you the same again.
Their hearts burned within them, something started to shift, but there was no recognition yet. They came near the village to which they were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “stay with us because the day is almost over.”
Hospitality is such an important spiritual practice. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Cleopas and companion offer hospitality to the stranger they have met on their journey. It is a sign of openness, of relationship, it’s an act of compassion towards another. Their practice of hospitality readies them for the next phase of their own transformation.
Jesus goes in to stay with them, and at table he does what he has done so many times before: he takes bread, he blesses and breaks it, and he gives it to them. It’s a rhythm, a ritual, a remembrance. This is the choreography of life that Jesus makes known to us. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving. Take up what you have been given, offer thanks to God, break what needs to be broken, give to those gathered at table, the friend and the stranger. Take, bless, break, give.
And in the breaking of the bread, their eyes are opened and finally they recognize him.
But the story isn’t finished yet. The journey isn’t over. Because that same hour, even though it was dark, even though it was late at night, even though the road was dangerous, they got up and returned to Jerusalem. The verb that Luke uses here gets lost in translation. The greek word that we translate “got up” is “anastantes”, the verb form of the noun that means resurrection. This is a resurrection story. Cleopas and his companion rise up and return to Jerusalem. They have been transformed, having passed through the shadow of death to new life.
They return to Jerusalem, to the place where they started, but they are not going back to normal. They have changed, and so has Jerusalem. Their sad and frightened band of disciples is now bursting with energy and excitement. “The Lord has risen indeed.” And they will never be the same again. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s words in his Four Quartets,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
As I think about the journey to Emmaus and back this year, I can’t help but think about it in the context of the journey that we are all on in this time of COVID-19.
We too began with a time of trauma, of infection, of death, of the need to stay at home. The sadness and grief continues, we’re stretched emotionally like Cleopas and companion. We’re on a journey, we’re trying to escape Jerusalem, we hope to reach a turning point, to rise up and return to normal, but we’re starting to suspect that when we get there the old normal will no longer exist.
During our bible study this week, we talked about this gospel, and we thought about where we would place ourselves if we used the text as a metaphor for our journey through this pandemic. I think that I would put us on the road to Emmaus. We’ve escaped the initial trauma of Jerusalem, though we’re not out of danger yet. Jesus is walking alongside us, though we may not recognize it yet. We’re in the early phase of our transformation. As this new story unfolds, as it opens up for us, we might find ourselves in a place where our hearts start to burn within us. And that’s worth paying attention to.
What are the things that are moving you these days? How is your heart burning within you? What things seem important that you hadn’t noticed before? What resonates, what’s different, how are you changing? These are the clues that point to where our journey is headed.
And it’s not just individual journeys. As a society, we are also on a collective journey. We will not come out on the other side of this unchanged. What’s burning in your heart with respect to our collective life right now?
Here are a few of the things that are moving me, some to tears, some to laughter, some to confusion in this time of COVID-19.
I am grateful for the dedication of our health care workers.
My heart burns when I contemplate the tragedy in our seniors’ homes and long term care facilities and all that that says about the way we value our elders.
I am moved by the healing of the earth, the visible purification of air and water as our consumption and production slows.
I am struck by the realization that many of the most essential workers in our country are paid the least and have the least security.
I am safe at home, but I know that thousands of people in our city have no home to go to and are at high risk.
I wonder at our ability to release of thousands of prisoners who are considered no threat to public safety from our jails.
I see the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit set at $2000 per month when social assistance is set at about $650 per month and Ontario Disability Support at about $1200.
I celebrate the success of transparency and cooperation, and lament the failure of self-interest and partisanship in halting the spread of COVID-19.
These are some of the things that move me as we journey together through this pandemic. What’s moving you?
We are on the road to Emmaus. In our sadness and confusion, Jesus walks alongside us, though we may not yet recognize him. Our hearts are burning within us as he speaks to us on this road. It’s a journey that will change us, individually and collectively.
We will not return to normal. We will be raised new life.
Homily. Yr A Easter 3, April 26 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 2.14a,36-41; Ps 116; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35
Image by Matthias Ripp, Creative Commons