There are four different Gospels proposed by the Church for Easter Sunday. Here I offer a homily on the Lucan account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I have written sermons and commentaries on two of the other Gospels; they are available here:
In this homily I reflect on the Emmaus Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) as a resurrection account, focusing on the journey of the two disciples out of darkness and into Easter light. (It is also clear that this whole Gospel account is a Mass, through and through, and I reflected on that aspect in another homily, available here: The Not-so-hidden Mass on the Road to Emmaus).
But on this Easter day, let’s focus on the journey of these two disciples in four stages, watching how their journey gets lighter and brighter as they go.
I. Despair – That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. 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. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”
As the gospel scene opens, we see two people: one named Cleopas and the other not named. Perhaps the other disciple is you.
Though it may be midday, they are experiencing a great darkness. Let’s consider their condition in four ways.
- They are Unfocused – As the curtain rises, we see these two, dejected and literally disoriented (they are traveling in the wrong direction, away from Jerusalem). It’s never a good idea to have Jerusalem behind you. Jerusalem is spiritual East, (oriens is the Latin word for east). Hence they are “dis-oriens,” disoriented; their focus is wrong. They are turned toward the west, toward darkness, away from the light and the resurrection.
So, too, for some (perhaps many) today whose focus is worldly and westward, rather than heavenly and eastward, toward spiritual Jerusalem. The second reading today says, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).
- They are Unaware – Jesus joins them and walks along with them. But the text says that their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. We too quickly assume that it is the Lord who is preventing them. More likely, however, it is their sorrow or lack of faith that prevents them. The text describes them as looking downcast. This may speak to their sorrow, but it also indicates a certain lack of awareness and attention.
Sometimes we are so busy looking down that we forget to look up and remember the heavenly glory that should ever be our true focus. Psalm 121:1 says, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Were they to lift their eyes from their downcast state, they might become aware of who it is that is speaking to them! Instead, they are downcast and hence unaware of the saving presence of the very Lord they lament.
- They are Unbelieving – They are well aware of the testimony of many in the Church that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead. They also know that this is the third day, for they refer to it as such. But they are sinfully stubborn in that they disregard the news of His resurrection (from the women and the apostles) and are leaving town. This is despite Jesus’ repeated promises that He would rise on the third day, the very day they are departing Jerusalem. Yes, they are unbelieving; they disregard the evidence of the very thing promised. Too easily we can do the same, collapsing at the slightest misfortune despite the countless blessings of the Lord.
- They are uninstructed – And thus the Lord rebukes them as foolish for being slow to believe what the prophets had written. The Lord likely does not use the word “foolish” to mean stupid or bumbling (today’s connotation). Rather, He is probably using the meaning common at the time: uninstructed in biblical wisdom. Foolish usually meant unwise, out of touch with or uninstructed in the wisdom of God. Thus the Lord rebukes their forgetfulness of God’s wisdom, as set forth in the Holy Scriptures. They are thinking as men think, not as God (cf Mat 16:23) thinks; they are thinking in worldly ways not in the ways of wisdom. We, too, can easily fall prey to worldly thinking if we neglect the biblical texts and are slow of heart to believe what God teaches us therein.
II. Decoding – “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.
The Lord decodes the recent events by teaching them, from the Word of God, what had been set forth about the Messiah.
What is Scripture? Scripture is the prophetic declaration of reality. It says, “This is what is really going on, no matter what you or others might think.”
And thus Jesus the Christ was fulfilling God’s plan. Nothing had gone wrong; nothing was out of control. The pride of Satan was defeated by the humble suffering of Christ; the disobedience of man was now replaced by the obedience of the God Man, Jesus. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.
And for us who are too easily dismayed by the apparent (and short-term) triumph of evil and injustice comes the decoding of history: the cross wins; it always wins. Although it remains a cross, for down through the ages the faithful experience suffering and injustice, it always wins. Sunday always comes and an eternal Sunday dawns one day for all of the faithful.
No matter what you think is happening, this is what is really happening. The Paschal mystery decodes all history: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—this what is really happening. We are always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10). Jesus is the resurrection and the life and all who believe in Him will live.
III. Disclosure – 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, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 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.
Despite the evening hour, it is gradually getting brighter. Their hearts have been stirred by this walk with the Lord, who though hidden, has addressed their burdens, given them hope, and supplied meaning to the recent painful events.
The words of an old hymn come to mind: “My load gets lighter; my way gets brighter; walking up the King’s highway.” Something tells them that this must continue, that it must grow ever deeper. They ask the hidden Lord to stay.
Meals in the ancient world were about more than food; they were also about relationships. Meals were both a sign and a cause of greater intimacy and depth in relationships. And this is to be no ordinary meal.
Clearly this entire pericope has been a Mass, from the gathering of two or three, to the presence of the Lord, to the instruction in His Word, and now to the celebration of the Eucharist. The Lord took the bread, blessed it and broke and gave it to them. No Catholic can fail to hear the words of this familiar action and not realize that this is the Eucharist.
And for us the purpose is the same: that our load gets lighter, that our way gets brighter, and that we grow more deeply related to the Lord, who saves us. It is in this context that the Lord’s fundamental disclosure Lord takes place. Their eyes are opened and they recognize Him in “the breaking of the Bread,” the ancient Christian description of the Holy Eucharist.
Two sad and downcast disciples journey with the Lord. As their load gets lighter and their way gets brighter, they can finally the Lord, who has never abandoned them is now disclosed to them by faith, the Word of God, and the Sacrament. Is this how you experience the Mass and your Christian walk?
IV. Declaration – Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
No one goes away from Jesus unchanged. These men, having experienced the Lord profoundly, are now changed. They reverse course; they are “reoriented.” They return to Jerusalem and to the Church, gathered. There, they share with the others the joy that they have experienced. Is this how you leave Mass each Sunday?
Though it is now late in the evening, the spiritual darkness has cleared; the night is as bright as the day. Jesus is risen; they have seen the Lord. The declaration of the Church is clear: “The Lord has been truly raised!” If the Church ever stops being able to experience and declare this, we will no longer be the Church. But as it is, Christ has been raised, and this has been our declaration to an often skeptical, sad world.
It is Easter and we have seen the journey of these two disciples out of darkness and into light. One was named Cleopas; are you the other unnamed disciple? How? What is your story?