I can’t tell you how many people this past week – around St. Paul’s and from, school – have told me that the story of Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is their favorite passage from scripture. Me, too. I love this story. I love coming back to it year after year during the Easter season. It’s such an enticing story. So richly layered. Offering us so many ways in to find ourselves and Jesus anew.
I love the Emmaus story because it turns on two archetypal elements of the human story as told in literature and film and real life. The journey and the meal. Think of all those heroes and their journeys – from Odysseus to Frodo Baggins. Heroines, too. Carrie Watts with her trip to Bountiful; Wonder Woman on a quest to fight for justice in Man’s World. The black, gender bending main characters in books by Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin walking across entire, broken continents. Or in the Bible, the people of Israel with their exodus from Egyptian slavery and then their exile to Babylon. Other real-life heroes like Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad; brave and desperate Central American refugees in caravans on the way to the Mexico-U.S. border.
I visualize this mythic human journey as a line, an arrow even, pointing straight ahead. But in life as in fiction, the intimate, domestic circle of a meal interrupts and interprets the linear, heroic quest. Something as simple as sitting down with those apple slices and cashews halfway through a hike in the Cascades, which allows us to take stock of where we’ve been and enjoy the view. Stopping at the coffee shop in that tiny town on the way to the coast. Or the meal at the end of a long, hot day walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and getting to know one’s fellow pilgrims. Journeysculminate in meals. Meals complete journeys
I hear all these themes sounded in the story of the road to Emmaus, which becomes the story of the breaking of bread at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) Journey and meal. Line and circle. And something else: scripture and sacrament.
On the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, two of his disciples journeyed the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which would have taken them hours of walking. What sort of journey was theirs? A hurried exodus from trauma and disappointment: we had hoped Jesus was the one. Exile from community in confusion and disbelief at words about the empty tomb and Jesus being alive. Or just the attempt to return to something more like the old normal.
A stranger joins the two on their journey. It is Jesus, but they fail to recognize him. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus retells his story, interprets to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. And still they do not recognize him.
Only when they arrive at the village, only at the end of a day’s travel, only after the two disciples show hospitality and implore the stranger to stay with them and share a meal, only then were their eyes opened and did they recognize Jesus. In the breaking of the bread. Not in a loaf of bread or as the bread, but through the entire, multilayered communal action of taking bread, blessing and breaking it, and giving it to those at the table.
The conversation about scripture on the road to Emmaus was the disciples’ education and formation. The meal provided sacramental revelation. They recognized Jesus with their bodies: seeing, yes; but also touching, smelling, tasting. They recognized Jesus through their bodily memory of other meals at which Jesus took, blessed and broke, and shared bread with them. And coming full circle, the meal’s nonverbal, sacramental action enabled the two disciples to put their journey with Jesus into words, to name their own experience. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?
Both-and, not either/or. Journey and meal. Line and circle. Scripture and
sacrament. Because if you combine a line and a circle, you get a spiral, moving ahead and upward, while remaining grounded and embodied, passing by those familiar places again and anew. Because if you combine scripture and sacrament you get the Mass, the church’s ever ancient, ever new pattern of worship on the Lord’s Day.
But I wonder how we find our way in to the Emmaus story this Easter season when we can’t travel much, can’t walk or drive, ride the bike or bus to work, to the park, even the neighborhood pub, let alone undertake a journey across country to visit family and care for those who need us? And at St. Paul’s, we form our little circles around these screens to worship. Plenty of visual / facial / verbal intimacy with each other and with scripture. But what about the rest of our bodies? Our hands and feet? Legs? Our backs and our bellies? What ways of seeing are excluded, what opportunities to recognize Jesus precluded, without the Eucharist, our sacramental meal?
For me, there’s a clue at the end of the Emmaus story. Maybe because I believe there’s a third element of our archetypal human story. Journey and meal and song! Immediately after their meal with Jesus, the two disciples got up and returned to Jerusalem. More hours walking those seven miles from Emmaus. I imagine their conversation was quite different from the one on their journey to Emmaus. I imagine the disciples singing the psalm we shared earlier this morning, a song of praise for what was revealed to them in the meal:
How shall I repay the LORD
for all the good things God has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call upon the Name of the LORD….
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call upon the Name of the LORD.
I will fulfill my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all God’s people.
In the courts of the LORD’s house,
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
Hallelujah! (Psalm 116: 10-11, 15-17)
Until a couple of months ago, these were the same words the priest presider and the deacon and the preacher and the lay altar servers would pray together before joining the rest of you in the church for Mass at St. Paul’s on Sunday mornings most seasons of the year. We still find ourselves on the road this Sunday in April, hearts burning within us as Jesus opens the scriptures, but we will all sing this song again someday as we recognize Jesus anew in the breaking of the bread at our table.
Resources: For all those heroes, heroines, and queer folk on their journeys. Homer, The Odyssey. J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings. The films: “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985) and “Wonder Woman” (2017). The characters Lauren Oya Olamina in Octavia Butler’s, The Parable of the Sower (1993) and The Parable of the Talents (1998); and Essun in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy (2015, 2016, and 2017).