(Image: Robert Zünd, Gang nach Emmaus [Public domain])
In the fourth resurrection appearance on Easter Sunday, the story of the Road to Emmaus, (Luke 24:13–32), two disciples of Jesus are leaving Jerusalem to go home to Emmaus after having travelled there for Passover. Along the way, they are discussing the passion and death of Jesus. The word Luke uses for discussing actually translates “tossing words”—they were arguing. Luke tells us the name of one of the disciples—Cleopas, Jesus’ uncle. Cleopas was married to Mary (who was present at the foot of the cross). So perhaps this was a married couple who were arguing!
In leaving Jerusalem, these disciples are the first “fallen away” Catholics, because in leaving Jerusalem after the death of Jesus, they are leaving the Church and its offices:
- Resurrected Christ—King
- Mary—Queen Mother (Hebrew gebirah)
- Peter—Pope (Hebrew albayit, prime minister, literally “head of the house”)
- Apostles—first bishops
Why do they leave? As the disciples themselves explain, they had hoped Jesus was the Messiah. In talking about Jesus as they walk along they no long call him son of God or messiah, but prophet. The son of God wouldn’t have died. In the face of the scandal of the crucifixion they have given up hope, like the apostles who didn’t believe Mary and the other women to whom Jesus had appeared earlier that day.
Jesus coming into their midst (unrecognized) shows the mercy of God seeking the lost. Christ, the Good Shepherd goes after these two lost sheep. He wants to bring them back to the Church in Jerusalem (where they will indeed go later that night). This image is one of great joy over one who is lost and then found—as in the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15).
In the same way you may have family members who have been away from the Church for years. What great joy we experience when they return. The heavens rejoice over this return—and also when we return to Christ through the sacrament of confession.
Bible study on the road
But why do the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize Christ, especially if Cleopas is Jesus’ uncle? As we are repeatedly told in Gospels, we need the “eyes to see and ears to hear.” This phrase is speaking of the necessity of faith in order to recognize the truth. In leaving the Church, they no longer have the faith necessary to see Jesus. Also, Christ’s resurrected, glorified body, while still his earthly body, is very different. In 1 Corinthian 15:35–58 Paul explains that the earthly body is to the resurrected body as a seed is to a tree. The resurrected body is clothed with power, glory and immortality. Jesus’ resurrected body is not like the frail, mutilated body on the cross, although he still bears nail marks in his hands and feet.
So what does Jesus do when he joins these disciples on the road and remains unrecognized? He could have just said, “It’s me, Jesus. Let’s go back to Jerusalem.” But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus holds a Bible study and explains Scripture as they walk the seven miles to Emmaus, seven being the number of covenant. Jesus shows how everything points to Himself. Hugh of St. Victor writes, “All sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ!” Saint Jerome is even more blunt, telling us that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!”
In opening the Scriptures to them, Jesus is essentially telling his two disciples, “If you knew Scripture, you would recognize me. The Scriptures foretold the necessity of my passion and death. I told you this was going to happen!” Wouldn’t you have loved to have been at this Bible study?
When they arrive at their home in Emmaus, it seems that Jesus will be continuing on until the disciples invite him to stay with them. Jesus is waiting to be invited. It is the same with us.
Have you ever seen William Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World illustrating Revelation 3:20: “I stand at the door and knock”? There is no doorknob on Jesus’ side of the door. He is always there wanting to come into our heart. But he is waiting to be asked, waiting for an invitation.
After the disciples invite Jesus to stay and eat with them, their blindness is lifted upon the “breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:30–31). Their physical sight corresponds to their spiritual sight, and they recognize Christ. This points to the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The words Luke uses to describe Jesus’ actions with the bread—took, blessed, broke, gave—are the same words used to describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The gospels also use these same words in recounting the miraculous bread miracles in the feeding of 4000 and the feeding of the 5000, which foreshadow the infinitely greater feeding miracle in the Eucharist. The disciples finally recognize Jesus because he is truly present in the breaking of the bread—as he is still truly present, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist.
Notice that when the disciples do recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, he disappears from their sight. What is going on? He had said he would stay with them (see Luke 24:29). But although they no longer see him, he is still present in the bread he blessed and broke and gave to them. And this is how Jesus remains with us to the end of the age, fulfilling his promise in Matthew 28:20.
In fact, the pattern of the encounter on the road to Emmaus is the same pattern we see in the Mass—the liturgy of the word, followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist. Jesus opens up the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus (liturgy of the word), then he breaks bread for his disciples in their home (liturgy of the Eucharist).
Hope and healing
This encounter on the road to Emmaus is a reversal of the Garden of Eden in which God walked with Adam and Eve. Their eyes were opened to sin when they ate the forbidden fruit. Now God walks with another couple whose eyes are opened to Jesus in the breaking of the bread—the fruit of the Tree of Life. Jesus blesses them by breaking open Scripture and breaking bread. These two disciples give us a physical representation of the whole of salvation history—walking away from God in sin and returning through Jesus Christ.
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus let us invite Jesus to stay with us!