Holy Wisdom Monastery
Acts 2: 14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
April 26, 2020
John Dominic Crossan, a leading New Testament scholar, was asked, “What do you make of the story of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus?” Without missing a beat, Crossan replied, “The Road to Emmaus never happened. The Road to Emmaus happens every day.” Put differently: it’s true, whether or not it happened.
We are all familiar with the Emmaus road: the road back after a loss, a death, a disappointment. The long road back to the daily routine, the road to lower expectations. Cleopas and his companion knew the road, too. They were walking, bone-weary, toward sunset – as Luke tells it, “on the same day” – the same day that the women disciples discovered the empty tomb, the same day that the other disciples saw it for themselves. This Jesus had held great promise – but the Romans had nailed him to a cross. Was this the end of the story?
Hanging in my home is a Gaelic Rune of Hospitality with the refrain, “Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.” And so it was! The Emmaus stranger, Jesus, joined the disciples’ conversation just as it was, just as the two disciples were, in their dashed hopes and crushing disappointment. His questions invited them to show their hand – “What has it been like for you over these past few days?” – and, unlike those who had stayed back in Jerusalem behind locked doors, these two took a great risk. They opened up about what it was like to be going back home with their heads and hearts low. How things had gone so awry. “We had hoped … but we were wrong….” The voice of the Emmaus road fellowship to which we all belong: “We had hoped ….”
For his part, Jesus waited, listened. He created a relationship through the ordinary grace of courtesy, the ordinary sharing of stories. Even ordinary exasperation with his (still) oblivious followers: “How foolish you are!” And only then, only after listening, did Jesus reach to transform the disciples’ relationship to their story by walking them through the scriptures – explaining the plan – again. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” A not-so-subtle reminder to his friends: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
But it’s hard to embrace a hope that seems so – well, so impossible. Who can blame these disciples for not expecting to meet a dead man on their way home? The disciples’ belief about what was true didn’t allow for an understanding that contradicted that belief. Not yet. But as they walked, with Jesus gentling them along, maybe the disciples’ disappointment and sorrow opened their hearts, if not yet their eyes. Maybe their early hospitality, their turning toward the stranger, and then summoning the courage to ask themselves how what they knew to be impossible could be true … maybe this allowed a dawning recognition of the man beside them? Maybe this “turning toward” gave them a level of confidence and ease that enabled them to invite Jesus to stay with them. Whatever it was, they asked –and Jesus stayed. Jesus, the stranger, was now their guest.
Now Jesus had already revealed himself to them while he was opening the scriptures, – but as a teacher, Jesus knew: experience trumps explanation. It was not Jesus’ incisive exegesis but the familiar gesture of breaking bread in which the disciples recognized him. Jesus was now – once again – the host, sharing the very actions that had been the center of his hospitality all along — with the five thousand, at the Last Supper: “… he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them…” Take, bless, break, and give. So ordinary. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus….” In the words of the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the disciples were “eastered!”
It is into the darkness of this COVID19 time that Easter again becomes a verb. The road to Emmaus is happening today, in our unstable and unfamiliar world. Like Cleopas and his partner, like the disciples hiding out in Jerusalem, we are tangled in the liminal space between the world of which we were so sure and the one that is emerging. Like them, we are afraid and anxious as we stand witness to death, mourn as our best-laid plans fade into the shadows.
The virus reminds us that today’s road to Emmaus is another journey into unknown territory. And as was true for the disciples, it won’t be information or expertise that shows us the way, but the opening of our hearts, the welcoming of the stranger, including the traumatized and isolated strangers within us all.
Cleopas and his companion turned toward the stranger – and Jesus made a place at the table for his friends’ shaken faith and broken hearts. In the ordinary pause and the common community of that shared meal, the disciples came face-to-face with connection and courage – and they recognized Jesus. In the ordinary pauses and the common community found in the sheltering-in-place across the world, we come face-to-face with our neediness, our fragility, with our own connection and courage – and we recognize Jesus. Jesus, the stranger, is our tender and steady guide to the jittery strangers within us today.
The pace of our life as usual slows, if life can ever be usual again. We have a different kind of time in which to notice how Easter as a verb reveals God at work – even in the worst of tragedies. With the Emmaus stranger as our guide, we can reach to embrace the common solitude of these days as a new state of hospitality – including hospitality to our own timid and exhausted spirits. Whether or not it happened, what makes the Emmaus story true is that we, ourselves, experience it whenever we open our hearts wide, whenever we imitate Jesus’ hospitality to our fears, anxiety, and loneliness. It is in this personal turning toward Jesus that we recognize the stranger next to us.
The disciples emerged from behind the walls of disillusionment and doubt and returned to Jerusalem with words of joy and hope on their lips: “Jesus was made known to us in the breaking of the bread!” Although they couldn’t even imagine it at first, the Emmaus road opened to a new world, offered a new witness, that was – and is still, today, emerging. The disciples allowed the grace of this new self-awareness to radically transform their lives. What visions of new life are emerging as we live with the Emmaus confidence that Jesus is walking with us? In the fullness of Hopkins’ words, “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”
 Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east…” The wreck of the Deutschland