Depending on whether Ascension Day is celebrated on Thursday or Sunday (it differs from region to region) there are five or six Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. The normal Gospel readings for these Sundays are taken from the Gospel of John—with one exception. On the third Sunday the Gospel is the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, taken from Luke (24:13-35). Of all the Gospel writers, Luke is probably the best storyteller. Almost all the memorable Gospel stories come from Luke: the Prodigal Son, Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Good Samaritan and the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
As with all of Luke’s stories, we are given rich details. Two disciples (later, we learn that one is named Cleopas) are leaving Jerusalem “that very day”— Easter Sunday — and heading toward Emmaus, a town not far from Jerusalem. We are simply told the two are deeply engaged in conversation about “the things that had happened.” Clearly this is no chat. It is not a stretch to see here two people in shock.
While they are walking and talking, Jesus joins them, although we are told “their eyes were kept from recognizing” him. It is a strange comment that Luke does not attempt to explain but the two really do not recognize Jesus. When Jesus seems unaware of the events they are discussing, Luke, the master storyteller, recounts, “they stopped dead in their tracks, sad and downcast.” They tell the story, ending it with “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” They then recount the reports they have heard about the empty tomb. But there is no indication that they put any credence in them.
At this point Jesus, still unknown to the two, takes over the story. We are told that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Later we learn the hearts of the two were “burning inside them” as Jesus explained the scriptures.
However, they arrive at Emmaus and Jesus appears to be going on. He is pressed to stay, and they have dinner. At dinner Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and gives it to them. This is an expression no Christian would miss. It occurs six times in the incredibly numerous Gospel accounts of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes, in the three Gospel accounts of the institution of the Eucharist and also in Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians.
These are most definitely not neutral words and they are not intended to be. They are words whose context every Christian would recognize.
“Surrounded by sickness and death, it is understandable that we often just don’t see Jesus, even when he’s walking right next to us.”Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.
Luke cleverly makes the “liturgical setting” clear. Not only is there the taking, blessing, breaking and distributing of the bread, it is preceded by an exegesis — a homily, so to speak —on the scriptures, specifically Moses and the prophets, explaining the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The intended result happens; their eyes are opened and Jesus disappears.
The two immediately return to the 11 in Jerusalem, understanding the events of the day and telling the disciples that they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread (24:35).
While there is no doubt that Luke is a master storyteller, he is first and foremost an evangelist, i.e. one who has Good News to tell. He is writing for Christians living some years after the events of Easter Sunday. He has a message for the readers of his day and for believers of generation after generations which will follow. These are readers who would be very familiar with the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass.
The first thing that is important is to understand that for much of the story the disciples — who, we might assume, had been close to Jesus — do not recognize him, even though he was walking beside them. That is not merely an interesting detail; it is central. The two travelers are, in fact, symbolic of all Christians who would follow through the centuries. Regardless who we are and regardless how close Jesus is to us, we very often do not recognize him. I suspect that is the human condition. Like the two, our expectations — our “we had hoped” hopes — get in the way and we do not recognize the risen Christ walking with us.
But that is not the end. The two “recognize him in the breaking of the bread”—the same breaking of the bread we do in every Eucharist. But what do they recognize? It’s not just recognizing a face, as if to say, “What do you know! This man we’ve been talking to is Jesus!” It is the very same recognition the 11 have when the two return: “The Lord is truly risen!”
Really great stories reach far beyond the time in which they were written. In a real way, Luke recognizes us all in the two people on the way to Emmaus. And the comparison is especially apt today. In this time of the coronavirus we all have a lot in common with those two travelers. To say that we too “had hoped” for better things is an understatement. To say that our sight too is clouded by fear about the present and future is painfully obvious to anyone paying attention. Surrounded by sickness and death, it is understandable that we often just don’t see Jesus, even when he’s walking right next to us.
But in reminding us about the breaking of the bread—the Eucharist—Luke also challenges us all. When we “do these things in memory” of Jesus, we should expect something to happen. We should expect that every time we break the bread, we too recognize Jesus — and this means (hopefully) we come to a deeper awareness not only that Christ was raised 2,000 years ago, but that he is alive today, walking with us, sometimes unrecognized, as we journey the path of life.