Brief synopsis of the readings: From the Acts of the Apostles Peter and others preached about how Jesus came, taught, and was killed. But he rose from the dead. Unlike King David who died, Jesus rose from the dead. Today’s Gospel from Luke recounts the “Road to Emmaus.” Two disciples walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles, when they encountered another person. This person asked what they were talking about, and the disciples expressed surprise that this man hadn’t heard about Jesus, about how he taught and led, how he was crucified, and the latest reports of the empty tomb. This man then instructed them that Jesus rose from the dead. This man also spoke about Moses and the prophets. On arrival at Emmaus the man attempted to keep going but the disciples invited him to join them for dinner. At dinner this man broke and blessed the bread. “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him [as the risen Jesus]. They then found the rest of the disciples and told them “how they recognized him at the breaking of the bread.”
Today’s Gospel is well known among Christians and is known as the “Road to Emmaus.” Much like the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers it’s a story in several acts. I’ve often thought that this Gospel story would make a good weekend retreat because of all that happens here. It describes the journey of two disciples, the joining of a stranger, their recounting of Jesus’ death and the empty tomb. It finishes with what we would now call a mass when they recognized him “in the breaking of the bread.”
Almost universally when someone we love dies, we think maybe it was all a bad dream and our loved one will come through the door and announce it had all been a mistake. As a matter of fact last week I suggested that those who didn’t believe in Jesus felt that his disciples just dreamed it up because they wanted it to be true.
But today’s gospel turns this experience on its head. Here they actually do see the resurrected Jesus and don’t recognize him. When I was an altar boy the pastor of our church was Fr. Welch. At the time I thought he was old (he was 60) and he came off as gruff and aloof. As a seminarian I had the chance to live with him for a year and found him to be a delightful storyteller. One evening he told me about a man, Ed, who lived in a small hovel near the church. He was a hoarder and didn’t have a job and he often walked to the rectory asking for food or money. Fr. Welch and the other priests got to know him well and looked forward to his visits. One night they learned that the hovel caught fire, and because of all the stacked newspapers, it was a complete loss. They also found the charred remains of a man who was asleep on the bed. The body was too badly burned to identify but since everyone assumed it was Ed.
The next night Ed showed up at the rectory asking for help as his house had burned down. The priests were astounded as they assumed Ed had died in the fire and couldn’t believe he was in front of them asking for help. Ed told them that he was somewhere else and a friend of his was indeed the charred corpse (and Ed needed a place to live). For Fr. Welch and the other priests Ed had literally returned from the dead.
And that leads me to the road to Emmaus. Clearly the disciples on this 2 hour walk would have recognized Jesus if he looked the same. Last week Jesus was not only recognizable, he still had his crucifixion wounds. But today he looked entirely different. This has led to the belief among some that when we are resurrected we will have new bodies. Note to God: my only request for my resurrected body includes a full head of hair. I don’t care about anything else.
They didn’t recognize Jesus in the walk. They didn’t recognize him when he recounted all that Jesus taught. But there must have been a hint as they invited him to dinner when they arrived in Emmaus. It’s worth recognizing that evening was coming and this stranger didn’t have the opportunity to check into the local Holiday Inn. They offered him the hospitality that was normal at the time.
But then it all turned. When he broke and blessed the bread “their eyes were opened.” Then, and only then, did they recognize Jesus.
Simply put, that is what Eucharist is supposed to do. When Jesus, at the Last Supper, broke and blessed the bread (and wine) he changed how we see each other. Eucharist doesn’t simply give us the “golden ticket” to Heaven, it gives us a new understanding of each other.
We are in the season of Easter. But Easter doesn’t give us the “golden ticket,” it doesn’t save us from suffering. Eucharist and Easter opens our eyes to see that the stranger among us is is the Jesus we meet on the road.
Many of us live in a place where Christianity is so persuasive that our faith doesn’t call us to anything difficult. When I lived in South Carolina I recognized that the word “Christian” was a synonym for “good.” I don’t disagree but this can also make us complacent.
And this complacency can make it easy to ignore the stranger who we find on the road. Had the disciples recognized Jesus on the road perhaps they would not have had the experience of opening their eyes in the breaking of the bread.
We now live in the COVID-19 world where we cannot receive Eucharist each week and many of us rely on FaceTime and Zoom to celebrate mass. Perhaps this will remind us that the “breaking of the bread” isn’t simply receiving Communion but instead recognizing that we see redemption in the breaking of the bread.