Of all the Gospel passages, Jesus appearance to his disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), which culminates in the breaking of bread, provides one of the most “oh boy can I relate to that” passages in all the Scriptures. The Road to Emmaus provides an analogy for our entire life’s spiritual journey.
The Blind Journeying
While scholars have tried to identify the Cleopas mentioned on this Road to Emmaus and his companion, the confusion on specifics reinforces the message that it does not matter who these disciples were; in fact, they are ourselves. Look at this part of the reading:
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
How much conversing and debating do we do in our lives? Sometimes our chats are about trivial things, but often they are about important spiritual insights reflecting on our evolving experiences. We entrust our hearts to our friends and family; we dig into these conversations with gusto. How unaware we remain that Jesus draws near us in these discussions, walks alongside of us, but we do not recognize him!
And what would it look like if we did recognize him right there beside us? How might we speak differently? Instead of venting and railing at injustice, might we become more reflective, might we listen more? Instead of complaining, would we be more accepting? Would recognizing our Lord’s presence in our midst raise our thoughts more heavenward? Of course!
Jesus asks them why they are upset. They explain with agitation all their grief, disappointment and confusion about Jesus crucifixion and death, how he did not rise to become the king of Israel, and how they heard he was alive after the resurrection but did not see him. Jesus’ response is direct and thorough:
Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them what referred to him
in all the Scriptures.
After Jesus’ injunction for their “foolishness,” he illuminates all of Salvation History — “all the Scriptures” understood in light of Christ’s salvific act. While the disciples did not recognize Jesus, they did listen to him. This was an essential act of will — their free choice to be open and listen to what the Lord said to them directly and how he responded by explaining the Scriptures.
Then the narrative seems to hang on a critical turning point:
As they approached the village to which they were going,
he gave the impression that he was going on farther.
But they urged him, “Stay with us…”
Jesus seemed about to leave the disciples at this juncture in the road, but they asked him to stay with them. This seems like a small variable in the narrative, but it is the vital next step to enable them to enter into the fullness of the faith. By asking Jesus to remain with them, they enter into deeper intimacy with Him.
The Breaking of Bread
Then we reach that breath-taking moment in the narrative when a casual moment transforms all:
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Now the commonplace, casual beginning of this passage builds to a dramatic climax. In the blessing and breaking of the bread, the disciples finally get it. Caravaggio’s rendition of this moment in his famous painting, “The Road to Emmaus,” captures the movement of light inwardly from the Lord, moving outwardly to the surprised faces of the disciples.
The word emmaus in Greek means “an earnest longing.” Does that not say it all for us? Amidst their confusion along the road, the disciples had a longing to understand. Jesus first walked with them and listened unaware. Then he probed them with questions. Next he rebuked them as fools, and took time to illuminate “all the Scriptures” in order so they could really understand why Jesus came among us — to save us from our sins and restore our communion with the Father.
Finally, in breaking the bread, Jesus restores them to full communion with him. The passage ends with “He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” This reminds us that our oneness with Christ depends upon our participation in the Eucharist. While not stated in the narrative, no doubt those disciples ate the bread — His very body offered in sacrifice for them. The sacrifice is reinforced when he immediately disappears; after He disappeared, the disciples no doubt took his body into their own bodies through the blessed bread of the Eucharist.
Only after this revelation do the disciples recall: Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So much of our awareness comes at a distance from experiences where Jesus has touched our lives. We are indeed slow learners — fools as we walk through our days on life’s journey.
The famous poet, T.S. Eliot, struggled amidst the horrors of post-World War I England. As an American expatriate living in England, he suffered with ‘the lost generation’ to understand God’s providence amidst some of the worst known horrors that human free will can exact. Yet, in his somewhat dreary poem, “The Wasteland,” hope breaks through in this excerpt from the Emmaus Walk section of the poem. Eliot’s words provide a fitting reminder to us all:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…