This Sunday, we read once again Luke’s powerful account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the two individuals journeying by foot from Jerusalem (where they had just witnessed the harrowing events of Jesus’ execution), to Emmaus (10-12 km to the west). Presumably, they were homeward bound; traveling back to the countryside, as they normally would in the wake of annual Passover celebrations -- back to “the new normal”. A familiar narrative to many of us; yet, it has an immense potential to speak to us anew in each stage of our lives.
A “road” is such an evocative image. The journey to Emmaus has inspired numerous works of religious art and hymns throughout the centuries, but of course, it’s not the only scriptural story to have done so: from the place of the Ethiopian Eunuch’s baptism, to that where St Paul met his conversion as he was heading to Damascus; from the Highway of Holiness of Isaiah, to the road to Jericho traveled by the Good Samaritan, to the dusty path that Jesus took towards the Golgotha... I’m sure you can think of many other stories featuring a road, both from our scriptures but also the sacred texts of every other world religion, since the theme of a “journey” towards a greater knowledge of the divine is central to human spirituality. But for us today, what’s particularly relevant in the Emmaus story is the state of the disciples’ hearts and minds immediately following the death of Jesus. The story gives us an archetypal representation of how a human-divine encounter may mediate the most devastating events in our lives.
We join these two travelers as they head away from Jerusalem three days following their gruesome experience. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing”, as Jesus once said about Jerusalem, in anticipation of how his followers will one day perceive it as the graveyard of all hope. One of the companions is named Cleopas; the identity of the other is not stated. But if this Cleopas is the same “Clopas” who is explicitly mentioned as the husband of a woman lingering at the foot of Jesus’ cross in John’s gospel, then the pair of fellow travelers are, in fact, a married couple - a symbol of a close relationship. While the exact identity of the two is beside the point, it may be the familiarity of their partner that enables them to share so frankly about their grief and bewilderment. How could it be that the prophet who proved himself so mighty in deed and word, whose identity came “so close” to that of their long-awaited Messiah, had so suddenly succumbed to the evil and unfairness of this world? They are forced to reassess Jesus’ life in light of his death, even as they question the authority that sanctioned such a death. It is only in our own closest relationships that we too, become free to voice the multiplicity of our feelings in our journey along the landscape of ambiguity, disappointment, and loss.
Today, we are faced with the unfathomable economic crisis, the policing of our state, the strains on familial relationships, and the ache of isolation. Having been misled by the media, some of us are wondering why the substantial individual and societal sacrifices we’ve made have not set us free from the COVID disease, as it seemed to have been promised. Of course logically, such thinking is flawed; but as our emotions come to the forefront, it is hard to keep ourselves from “traveling in the wrong direction”. Similarly, through the lens of their experience, the companions on the road are able to see Jerusalem only as a place of plain. 2000 years later, we now see it as the scriptural symbol of God’s presence and the place from which the “good news” flows. To the travelers in the story, Jerusalem is a place of defeat, a place they are desperately trying to leave as they are trying to make sense of it by discussing it with each other. To us, our isolation-crippled world is a place of such failure and collapse. We, too, are longing for the day we may escape it, we too, are trying to make sense of it in constant discussions, but we lack the vantage point of the future that will one day enable us to discern the fullest meaning of our present experience.
All human life is this: the process of moving away from the present, whether it is a place of pain that causes impatience, or that of gratitude that causes anticipatory grief. Either way, it is a process of letting go - of dying and rising. We are now more than ever aware of trying to move forward, of struggling against the current, of the unknowability of the future. But the present moment is all we have. It would equally be a mistake to let go of all expectations and merely survive, as it would be to set unrealistic expectations or fill our lives with the made-up flurry of activity. The true meaning of today will come to us in time; until then, God joins us and our closest companions -- in the present moment, and unbeknownst to us. He joins us first, without waiting for us to come to him, or “to arrive”.
Watch how Jesus joins the companions on the road and travels with them: he walks exactly at their pace; he meets them exactly where they are -- not where they think they ought to be, nor where they think God may want them to be. He walks with them even if their progress takes them in the “wrong” direction. They do not recognize him at first, just as we rarely recognize God’s activity at the moment that it occurs. It is often in retrospect that our “eyes become fully open” to what we had been given. But God doesn’t seem to hold this against us, as shown by that Jesus didn’t mind the lack of the travelers’ recognition, nor did he force an immediate self-revelation upon them. In fact, there is probably a good reason that humans have been created to never know the future and often to be blind to the full reality of the present. Just as the deep knowledge of our close human companions comes to us over time through the authenticity of our relationships, God’s gradual revelation of herself gives us the necessary space to take true ownership of such knowledge, and connect with it on a personal level.
We often reflect on the road to Emmaus over the Eastertide. Here are the questions that this story provoked for me this year. 1) The Emmaus story ends with the companions on the road recognizing Jesus for who he was when he recounted some of the scriptures for them, and repeated his symbolic action of breaking bread for/with them. This reminds us that both the scripture and tradition help us interpret God’s activity -- a process often mediated by our connections with other people. How could we be more open to the divine energy on a personal level, at the time when we don’t have quite the same experience of it on the corporate level? But recall that many of Jesus’ early post-resurrection appearances were to individuals, not to groups; therefore, personal spiritual development is not only possible but probably necessary to achieve a corporate religious identity. Today, we would benefit from cultivating our personal rituals and contexts for experiencing the transcendent, even as we look forward to being able to return to our church buildings.
2) There isn’t a person in the world who has not been touched by the truly global crisis of today -- albeit to vastly different degrees. This experience presents us with a much more shared narrative for our existence than we’ve ever had before - a common road to travel. It is no wonder that many of us have had a sense of reawaked or increased compassion and camaraderie with our neighbors (though of course, the opposite has been true as well). But in reaching out to touch the lives of others today, how can we best follow Jesus’ example to meet people where they are, walk at their pace for a little while, and avoid hurrying them towards “discerning” our own idea of the future?
I believe that “the scripture and ritual” still form a large part of the answer to both of these questions. Only now every one of us has to work much more honestly and independently to engage with both, to take ownership of our own spirituality, and to find the strength to foster the discipline to do so. May this be the gift of the present times to our religious life of the future.