Where are the alleluia’s? The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are clearly in no mood for singing as they go. Look at them: shoulders hunched, they walk like old men bearing the burden of a disappointing world. Brows furrowed, eyes on the dust at their feet, thoughts trapped on a dark hill and at an even darker tomb, irrevocably sealed in stone. They see no one in the present story who will stand at the tomb’s entrance and command, “Come out!” (cf. John 11:1-44) The truth is that the tomb is their own: dead hopes lie there, never to rise again. No, the tomb is themselves: they are buried in their own misery.
It’s hardly any wonder they failed to recognize the stranger who joined them on the road. They had no room for him in their shrunken and desiccated expectations. And they certainly had no room in their minds to see a Jesus who was anything more than a mangled corpse wrapped in grave cloths and already returning to dust and bone.
He revived them, of course. They were as hobbled and blinded as Lazarus had been by his shroud, but Jesus inflicted on them none of the shattering drama of Lazarus’ summons from the tomb. Instead, he listened. He knew that once their shroud of discouragement was out in the light where they could name it, he could begin to cut it away and set them free. His blade was the Word of God, which St. Paul would call “the sword of the Spirit,” (Ephesians 6:17) but he wielded it slowly and gently. Bit by patient bit, he opened the enshrouded eyes of their hearts, using the word as the psalmist had once described it: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). He led them gradually to see the present reality of a post-Calvary darkness from the new perspective opened by that light. Like the good teacher that he was, he brought them to the brink of that “Oh!” moment when everything changed. Seeing things differently is the beginning of conversion. Later they would call the experience fire: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”
Perhaps with a hidden smile, he accepted their urging to stay with them for a meal as evening fell. No doubt Luke, writing thirty or more years after the event, took it for granted that conversion from the isolation of self-centeredness to the communion of love in Christ begins by hearing the word broken open and then receiving the bread also broken and shared, just as we do at the Eucharist. And so Jesus first put heart into his downhearted disciples on the road to Emmaus by giving them new access to the word of God; then he fed them, strengthened them, and energized them with the bread of his own life.
They were utterly transformed. No more hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, no more hearts weighted with the burden of dead hopes, no more suffocating imprisonment in their own misery. All that forgotten, they ignored the gathering dusk and ran back immediately to Jerusalem to share the good news with the others whom they had abandoned as the community began to splinter under the pressures of grief, disbelief, and mistrust of one another’s accounts.
And Jesus, who had disappeared before the meal was over? He went with them unseen, of course.
And he still travels with us, often unrecognized, as we walk that Easter road taken by the two disciples who thought they were going to Emmaus. And he still feeds us with his own life, wrapped up as word and bread. But let’s be honest. Our journey is not always a matter of eager alleluias either. The road seems long, and we are tempted now and then to retreat to what we imagine to be the peace and security of the tomb we left behind. Clothed though we are with the risen Christ, we tell ourselves that we’re really warm and cozy there in the dark as we shiver in the shroud of self-concern, thin and full of holes, sewn tight shut with the heavy threads of discouraging “should” and “ought” and “can’t.” What were we thinking? That we were headed toward the Promised Land, and in good company? Disbelief still sneers at us in our idealistic Easter hopes. Don’t worry. He will come back for us again. And he won’t stand outside the tomb of self in which we are immured. He will come in and get us and carry us back out into the sunlight and set us once again on the road, traveling with us as we go (see John 14:18). That’s what he promised—and he keeps his promises!
Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga, 2017