The Emmaus Story

Of the stories unique to the Gospel of Luke, perhaps none is as compelling and fascinating as that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). It is like a microcosm of the Church itself. It is filled with imagery that is pertinent not only to the Easter season, but to every day in the Church’s life. In fact, scholars suggest that the narrative is largely catechetical and liturgical in nature, fitting well in the post-Easter context of mystagogy, deepening one’s appreciation and understanding of the faith.

Synopsis

The story is well known and needs only to be summarized briefly here. Two disciples, discouraged after the crucifixion of Jesus, are leaving Jerusalem by the road leading to Emmaus, when a stranger draws near and inquires about what they were discussing. The stranger, of course, is Jesus, but “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him,” an indication that God is acting behind the scenes for a greater purpose (the divine passive). They recount the incredible tale of the resurrection story they had received from the women who had gone to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty.

The stranger then remarks on their lack of comprehension and proceeds to interpret “all the Scriptures” for them, explaining the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering. Then they invite the stranger to stay with them for the night and, while at table in a clearly Eucharistic setting, they recognize the stranger’s true identity, and he vanishes from their sight.

Their final comment and action provide the key interpretive clue: “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” They return to Jerusalem with the incredible tale of how they had come to know Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.”

Four Revealing Details

While, reflecting on this story over many years, I have come to realize that it contains an incredible number of details that pertain to the Church’s ongoing life of faith. I only have space to focus on four of them here that seem particularly pertinent to this liturgical year and the Year of Faith we celebrate.

• Word and Sacrament

The most obvious meaning of the story centers around the understanding of the disciples that comes to them in two interrelated forms, the Scriptures and the Eucharist. Two features more essential to Catholic identity cannot be found. We are by definition, as a community of faith, gathered around Word and Sacrament, which Vatican Council II described as “the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (Dei Verbum, No. 21). Word and Sacrament are intimately bound together, for both reveal the God of revelation, reaching out to befriend humanity and draw us into communion with one another and with God.

In the Emmaus story, Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures has a prophetic emphasis because he begins with Moses and all the prophets and then proceeds to interpret all the Scriptures for the two disillusioned disciples. But it is in the Eucharistic action that follows, when Jesus repeats the gestures of the Last Supper (blessed, broke, gave the bread), that their full recognition of the stranger arrives. Just when the bread is broken and “their eyes were opened,” Jesus vanishes. Note again the passive voice. God’s grace ultimately allows their recognition of the risen Jesus in the Eucharistic meal.

• On the Road Again

A second feature of the story is also compelling as an image for the Church. The story begins and ends with a journey “on the road,” we might say. At first, the two disciples, one of whom is named (an otherwise unknown Cleopas), are leaving Jerusalem. But after their recognition of the risen Jesus in Word and Sacrament, they head back to share their experience with the other disciples in the Holy City. Their conversation takes place enroute. Their experience of the risen Jesus takes place on a journey, at first filled with disappointment and perhaps fear, but then concludes with another journey, filled this time with a desire to share their good fortune. They become witnesses to Jesus Christ, the suffering Messiah, while on the road.

A distinctive feature of Vatican II, as is well known, was its use of the metaphor of the “pilgrim Church” (Lumen Gentium, No. 7). What is so startling about it is that it runs counter to a traditional understanding of Church as institution, practically an immovable, unchangeable body. Being a pilgrim community, in perpetual motion and always on journey toward our destiny in the kingdom of God, is a summons to recognize our limitations on this earth. At the same time, the image recalls that the risen Lord comes to us on the road. Indeed, he accompanies us, even when we do not recognize him until that miraculous moment of realization when the Scriptures and the Bread are both broken open.

• Disciples Together

A third striking element of the Emmaus story is the disciples themselves. A few scholars have speculated that the two on the road, Cleopas and his companion, may have been a married couple! This is not impossible, for the New Testament does mention married couples as disciples. One thinks immediately of Paul’s companions in Corinth, Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19), who hailed from the church in Rome. It is also likely that Andronicus and Junia, who are called “prominent among the apostles,” were a married couple (Rom 16:7). But the Lucan text does not actually give us details to affirm that perhaps the two on the road to Emmaus were themselves a married couple. That remains pure speculation.

More important is that they are together and that they are commiserating in their disappointment about the fate of Jesus. Moreover, their reaction and bewilderment has been shaped by the testimony of other disciples, the faithful women who had taken the news of the empty tomb to Peter and the others (Lk 24:10-11,22). This is a network of discipleship. One is not called alone into the community of faith but with others. In addition, the disciples share the story of Jesus of Nazareth together, they rejoice in the good times and commiserate in the bad, and ultimately they take refuge in the community of Word and Sacrament that preserves the faith of the apostles.

• The Role of Women

Another aspect of this information is the inclusion of women. One of the most sensitive modern issues in the Church today revolves around the role of women. The New Testament, of course, comes from an entirely different cultural context than our own. We must be careful not to read into the biblical text too much. Yet I think the presence of women in this story is not insignificant, given that Luke, of all the Gospels, shows greater interest in including women in the stories about Jesus (Mary, Anna, Elizabeth, the faithful women of Jerusalem, etc.).

Three points stand out. First, the fact that the women were the first to perceive the empty tomb, to receive the angelic message of the resurrection and recognize its significance is telling. Moreover, their fidelity to Jesus in his final agonies, when all the other disciples had fled, speaks volumes about the faithfulness, endurance and courage of these women (Lk 23:55; 24:1-11; etc.). Secondly, the fact that their testimony after the resurrection was either not believed, because it seemed like “nonsense” (24:11), or was terribly puzzling (24:22), is indicative of the boundary-crossing that some early Christians represented in the context of their times. Normally, the testimony of women was not admissible as real evidence in Jewish society, yet early Christianity was founded on the basis of their testimony. (Keep in mind that most scholars think Mary Magdalene, in fact, was the first recipient of the news of the resurrection [Jn 20:11-18], and ancient tradition calls her apostola apostalorum — the apostle to the apostles.)

Microcosm of the Church

If these four features of the Emmaus story do not give us the whole picture, I believe they show us some essential aspects of the story that can rightly defend it as a kind of microcosm of the Church. In the midst of the three-year anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (2012-2015) and the current Year of Faith (2012-2013), we might take some time to reflect on the profound dimensions of this rather simple but profound story from the Gospel of Luke. It is filled with many Lucan themes, but at the very least we can say it shows us a community of disciples — women and men — on the road, ready to receive Word and Sacrament and always open to the surprising revelation that God sets forth through His Son Jesus Christ. TP 

Father Witherup, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice and frequent contributor to The Priest magazine. He recently published Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012), and a set of CD’s, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Spirituality of Paul the Apostle (Now You Know Media, 2013).