There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say
And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’ They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.
The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?
I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.
Who does not love the gospels we read this week, with their stories of meeting the Risen Christ? How one’s whole being thrills with Mary Magdalene as she hears the Lord calling her by name or with those weary disciples, their hearts burning within them as the scriptures are explained to them on the road to Emmaus, and then that amazing moment of recognition as Jesus breaks bread with them. We shall see the Risen Christ on the sea-shore, put our hands into the mark of the nails, be questioned by him, be commissioned by him. We shall know him, yet not know him; recognize him yet still perhaps doubt. In a word, we shall be plunged into the mystery of the Resurrection — and it will all be new, strange, unsettling and the most profound joy we have ever known.
For most, the way in which we are celebrating Easter this year is without precedent. We have been discovering anew the power and holiness of the domestic church — making a chapel of our living room, an altar of our table and a lectern or pulpit of our tablet or smartphone. For some, live-streamed worship has taken the place of gathering physically with the parish community; for others, there has been a more conscious and regular participation in the ancient prayer of the Church known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Whichever it is, the intention is the same: to meet the Risen Christ, to adore him, to love him, to serve him. That is why, no matter how engaged we are with worship, we cannot neglect him in our brothers and sisters, many of whom are suffering terribly at this time.
For a cloistered nun like me, that poses a special challenge but it is one I suspect my older or less able readers may share. Yes, we can pray; but can we do anything practical to help those in need? For many of us the answer will be a disappointing ‘no’. We haven’t the money or resources, physical or otherwise, to help others directly. Happily, that also means we can’t pat ourselves on the back that we have done something good and worthwhile. We actually have to live our faith. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have an ambiguity that draws us in. We don’t see him healing or preaching. He just is; but he is in a way that is intensely alive and life-giving. I have a hunch that we who call ourselves his disciples are meant to be the same. We may not do very much, but through our prayer and our readiness to respond to the Lord, we are inviting the Risen Christ into the heart of a sick and suffering world which he alone can heal and give new life to. It is a humbler role than we might like, perhaps, but it is the one that will prove most fruitful.
We may not always recognize the Risen Christ as we would wish, but I’m confident he will always recognize us; and that is what matters. Cleopas and his companion walked seven long miles in Jesus’ company, but only recognized him when he himself chose to disclose himself to them. Let us be try to be ready for that moment in our own lives.
What connection can there be between today’s gospel, Luke 24.13-35, and the General Election, to say nothing of the illustration, which shows a very Jewish Jesus at table with his disciples? Is this to be another of those highly-contrived discourses one occasionally hears from the pulpit when the clergy try very hard to be ‘relevant’? I hope not. In any case, I’m more preached to than preaching, being only a nun; but the gospel must speak to our everyday lives, which include politics, or we are living in a little bubble of our own making from which, for all our piety, we effectively exclude God.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus had an odd experience. Someone walked with them in their sorrow and distress whom they did not recognize, but to whom they instinctively warmed. True to their values of hospitality and welcome to the stranger, they invited him into their house to share their supper, and knew him then, as if for the first time. So far, so good. We all know those moments of recognition, I call them ‘Emmaus moments,’ when we have a kind of private epiphany. They tend to be both wonderful and challenging at the same time. For Cleopas and the other disciple, they were a revelation — not only of who Jesus was, but of the way in which the scriptures were to be interpreted in relation to him. Then, as with any biblical theophany, they were left apparently alone with a mission to fulfil, which involved another long walk that same evening, back to Jerusalem, to share their news with the Eleven. A moment of privileged insight also comes with great responsibility.
The calling of a General Election has been greeted with the usual amount of comment and instant interpretation. Some of it is predictably lightweight; some rather more substantial; and some a little troubling. For example, some of those weary of party politics have said they will not vote or will spoil their ballot papers as a protest. I myself find that questionable. It is not just that people died to win us the right to vote; not just that the recent Referendum in Turkey shows how fragile parliamentary democracy can be; but that the protest implied by not voting or spoiling one’s ballot paper is not really, to my way of thinking, a protest at all. It provides a comfortable feeling of not being part of the messy political process, but I question whether we have the right to do that, and whether it actually achieves anything. We keep our own hands clean, as it were, and leave the rest to go their own way, a bit like Pilate washing his hands at the trial of Jesus. I daresay there are some who can endorse every word of their chosen party’s manifesto; most of us probably have to decide which, on balance, we believe would be in the best interests of the country as a whole, the common good in other words, and that can mean swallowing some very unattractive policy pledges along with those we think right. We vote with many an internal hesitation but we do so because we believe that not to vote is worse.
How do we decide what will be in the best interests of all, of the common good? We can reread Populorum Progressio, one of the outstanding expositions of Catholic Social teaching of the last fifty years; or we can simply think about today’s gospel. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were clearly people of integrity. They read the scriptures; they lived good lives; they welcomed the stranger. Crucially, they put their values into practice. They were seekers of truth; and once they were convinced, they acted. We cannot dismiss the General Election as of no consequence to us or take refuge in a kind of moral isolationism. For all of us there is the prospect of several weeks of thinking really hard about matters many of us understand imperfectly, if at all. It will be hard work — especially if we are convinced we already have all the answers — but I don’t see how we can avoid it. With the right to vote comes the duty to exercise it responsibly.
And what about that illustration? I think it challenges many of our preconceptions. We tend to think of the rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus as a twentieth century phenomenon. To learn that it comes from twelfth-century England is amazing, and we can spend time thinking about the history of anti-semitism in this country and all the injustices perpetrated over the centuries. This morning, however, I would suggest another and simpler question to consider. What does it teach us about the welcome we extend to the stranger and alien, not just as individuals but as a nation state? What does the Emmaus story have to teach us about the values we will bring to making our electoral choices?