Brief synopsis of the readings: On our journey through Acts of the Apostles we find Peter (on the day of Pentecost) addressing “Men of Israel.” Peter accused them of killing Jesus but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades. He then quoted David in Psalm 16 where David proclaimed that God would not abandon him to Hades. Peter then announced that while David died and was buried, David foresaw the resurrection of Jesus in his prophecy that he (David) would not be abandoned in Hades. Luke’s Gospel describes the iconic story of the “Road to Emmaus.” Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, speaking of the news of the last few days. Another man joined them and asked what they were talking about. One of the disciples, Cleopas, in his astonishment, suggested this stranger was the only person in Jerusalem who didn’t know what happened. They explained that Jesus of Nazareth came as a great prophet but was crucified. They also described reports of the empty tomb and how some received visions that Jesus was alive. The stranger then rebuked them and described passages that described him. As they approached Emmaus the stranger appeared to bypass the town. The disciples invited him to join them for the evening and he accepted. At dinner the stranger blessed and broke the bread. Those gathered recognized that this stranger was indeed Jesus, and then Jesus vanished. In that moment they knew they the rumors were true, and Jesus rose from the dead. “They recognized him at the breaking of the bread.”
Last week I bemoaned the story of the “Doubting Thomas.” This week I celebrate one of my absolutely favorite Gospel passages: the road to Emmaus. There is so much material here I’ve often thought I could build a weekend retreat on this reading alone.
We don’t have a transcript and we can’t know much of the dialogue between Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, but we can imagine they spoke of their bewilderment. Much like Thomas, I imagine they did what many of us do when we are faced with incomplete news that matters a great deal to us: they vacillated between hope and despair.
Some of you know this, but four years ago my employer (San Diego Hospice) declared bankruptcy and went out of business. In the months before we closed our doors we rode a roller coaster. We were told, again and again, to be hopeful while evidence mounted that we were headed to a bad end. In those months countless of us had countless discussions where we tried and failed to make sense of what was happening. On Ash Wednesday of 2013 we were told that we were all out of a job.
Part of the reason I love this Road to Emmaus lies in the fact that the final news was good. This stranger, who at first appeared clueless, became the focal point of the story. And I love the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not recognize him. Over the centuries many of us have viewed this as proof that when we get to Heaven we get new bodies and we point to the fact that these disciples did not recognize him.
Imagine that someone you love dies. For many of us, we hope it’s all a bad dream and that a door will open and our loved one appears and tells us it was all a mistake. I know that we would all recognize our loved one immediately. But when Jesus appeared to these disciples, they didn’t recognize him, and that tells me (and others) that when we are resurrected from the dead we will have new bodies. Speaking only for myself, all I care about is a full head of hair. I don’t need to be tall or handsome, I just need to not be bald. I look forward to my resurrected body.
And if I’ve named my best hope for the resurrection, I have to confess that my desire pales in comparison to David’s as he is quoted in our first reading. We generally assign authorship of the Psalms to King David. It may or not may be factual, but we hold it to be true. Certainly St. Peter found it to be true when he quoted David in Pslam 16 where David proclaims that God will not abandon him, and Peter extended it to tell us that God will not abandon any of us to Hades.
This sets up the crux of our Gospel as it comes toward the end. Even in the midst of their despair and confusion, Jesus’ disciples offer hospitality to this stranger. And in accepting their hospitality, Jesus gives us a great gift. When he broke the bread, they all recognized that Jesus was with them all along.
And then he left. Almost by design Jesus did what he needed to do and left his followers empowered to move on.
I think all of us recognize that when this stranger broke and blessed the bread, all those gathered recognized this stranger as Jesus. The final line of the Gospel acknowledges that “they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”
If you, like me, grew up Catholic you’ve been to countless masses in May when you’ve shown up only to learn that this week’s mass is “First Communion.” We groan because mass will go on much longer because a few acres of 7 year old boys and girls will receive Communion for the first time. Boys who struggle to breathe despite tight clip-on red ties and girls who don’t understand why they need wear veils line up to consume a small piece of bread that tastes like cardboard placate parents, grandparents, and other vague family members.
And if that isn’t bad enough, they suffer through sermons who describe “food for the body and food for the soul.” Eucharist’s description describes nutrition.
OK, can I go in another direction? We’ve often thought about Eucharist as something that enriches our soul. But maybe Eucharist also enriches our sight.
When the stanger, who we know is Jesus, joined the disciples at dinner he blessed and broke the bread. At that point their eyes were opened and they, only then, recognized that this stranger was the resurrected Jesus. Their eyes were opened. They recognized that their discussion at the beginning of the reading was over and their best hope was realized in front of them. They saw that the stranger in front of them was Jesus.
Today many of us attend mass weekly (and perhaps daily) and our reception of Eucharist has become a habit. I hope this reception does not make us complacent. I hope instead it affects our sight and opens our eyes. St. Theresa of Calcutta once famously said: “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” We live in a time where we are told to look at strangers with suspicion and even fear. I hope today’s Gospel causes us to look anew, to invite the stranger “on the road” to join us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus offered hospitality to a stranger and found their Redeemer. I wish that for all of us.
I hope it calls us to recognize that we are all on the Road to Emmaus.