Gospel Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter – 23rd April 2023 Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
The Resurrection account of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus is, without doubt, one of the best remembered and frequently recounted stories in the Gospels. That is as it should be, because it is written with a sensitivity and compassion that reaches out to us, drawing us along on a gentle journey towards recognition of a stranger as the Risen Jesus.
As I say so frequently in these reflections, how I would love to have been there listening to and watching the conversations taking place as they walked the road. Like the apostles and the other small band of Jesus followers, these two disciples were upset, disappointed and saddened that their hopes had been shattered on Calvary. However, unlike the apostles, these two disciples did not stay in Jerusalem but were travelling home after celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. They had abandoned hope that Jesus was the Messiah and were, in effect, licking their wounds and trying to move forward with their lives.
When we meet them on the road, they are discussing together what had happened over the few days since Jesus was suddenly arrested. However, to say that they were ‘discussing’ the events that happened would be a bit misleading. The Greek word Luke used is better translated as ‘arguing’ or ‘disagreeing’. Once again, the Gospels allow us to see the raw emotions they were experiencing.
Disappointment, disillusionment, and deep regret almost inevitably spill over into anger and frustration. While we are not told who the disciples were, though one is named as Cleopas, my own sense is that they knew each other very well, probably husband and wife. Their ‘arguing’, therefore, would not be a display of division between them, more an expression of defeat and failure.
It is into this, not quite amiable, conversation that the stranger appears. Like Mary Magdalene, who thought she was talking to a gardener when she found the tomb empty, the two disciples do not recognise the stranger as Jesus. Also like Mary, we are left in no doubt that they should have recognised him, being close enough followers to know his appearance.
Exactly why ‘they were prevented’ from recognising him we are not told. The shock effect of ‘resurrection from the dead’ is a possible reason for not recognising him but more important, I think, is that all of the resurrection accounts emphasise that while it truly was Jesus who was again with them (he ate and drank with them, they touched him, spoke with him), he is not just a resuscitated body, like maybe Lazarus was when Jesus brought him back to life.
The Gospels stress that the Risen Lord was the friend they had known, but he was also ‘different’. They sometimes use the word ‘glorified’ to explain this difference (he could appear and disappear from locked rooms, it took a while to recognise him, etc.). Once again, it is important for us to realise that the writers of the Gospels are trying to put into words something that is without precedent; something that is beyond words.
The person of Jesus presented to us for the rest of this story is, for me, truly wonder-full. His gentleness in talking to two vulnerable, grief-stricken people is breath-taking. Never once does he impose himself on them; never once does he trample on their sadness; never once does he dominate them; never once does he make light of their worries and fears. On the contrary, his questions are gentle, he respects their views, listens to them, and treats them with absolute dignity. To sit quietly and read this story from start to finish is itself a prayer and can only lead us to encounter a God who is patient, tender and infinitely loving.
When he asks them “what matters are you discussing as you walk along…” we are told that they ‘stop short’, the reply of Cleopas, “…you must be the only person in Jerusalem who does not know what happened…” tinged with irritation and anger. Jesus does not become defensive or seek to justify not appearing to know what happened. Rather, he simply asks, “What things?” His gentle, non-judgemental question disarms any resentment they feel, and they begin to express their disillusionment and loss of hope. He does not interrupt them as their sadness almost pours out of them. He lets them talk of their dreams and shattered hopes until they are finished, concluding with the strange, unbelievable stories of the empty tomb and vision of angels saying that he was alive again.
The fact that they say this while they are leaving Jerusalem rather than staying to check-out the stories must lead us to conclude that they do not believe the stories. They have given up hope and have only shattered dreams.
Only at that point, when they were ready to listen, did Jesus speak to them. His opening words, “You foolish people, so slow to believe the full message of the prophets….” do not, for me, express anger or ridicule. I imagine Jesus making this statement with a sad, resigned, gentle smile on his face. Yes, they have missed the promises made by God in the past, and yes, they have forgotten that God kept his promises to Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and the other leaders of God’s chosen people, but there is only understanding and compassion in his words. He goes on to ‘explain to them’ all that they had missed. He does not do so in an intellectual, cold, or clinical way, as a teacher might explain history to a reluctant child. Instead, he brings them into the story of salvation with him – explaining things in such a way that “…their hearts burned within them.”
As Jesus talks their hope is rekindled and their dreams are restored.
It always strikes me as important that it was not Jesus who suggested that they eat together. Nor did he invite himself to share their meal. Jesus, it seems to me, was happy to let them go on their way not knowing who he was, but with their hope restored. It is they who invite him and indeed “press him to stay” when he indicates that he is going further.
It was at their insistence that he stays with them, doing what Jesus did so often in his life; using the friendly companionship of a shared meal to tell them something important.
When they were ready, and only when he knew they were ready, did he open their eyes to recognise him.
The Gospel writers set the recognition in a Eucharistic context, which is, of course, theologically important for later believers. However, overall, this story is far bigger than any of its parts.
It is the story of a journey towards God.
The two disciples, disheartened and depressed, arguing about what happened to Jesus, meet a stranger who walks with them. With patience, respect, and gentleness he listens to them, gradually returning their hope, making “their hearts burn within them”.
Finally, while sharing companionship over a meal, their eyes are opened, and they are able to recognise him for who he is – the Risen Jesus.
They respond to this recognition in the only way possible. With joy and excitement they rush to share their news with the others.
This story begins with two dejected and demoralised people leaving Jerusalem. It finishes with the same two people, now excited and certain, rushing back to Jerusalem to share what they were now certain of – that the Lord had Risen, and they had seen him.
From start to finish this is our journey too. We need not be afraid. Everything Jesus did in life showed us the nature of the God who created us. Now, after his Resurrection, he continues to show us that same God.
The God we walk with on our life journey is gentle, patient, compassionate and always allows us to set the pace.
When the time is right, and only when we are ready, will we recognise him as he is. Until then, the Risen Lord continues to walk with us, watching, listening and speaking to us in the voice of every stranger we meet along the way.
Let us pray, this Eastertide, that we will allow God to ‘open our eyes’, restoring our hope in God’s ‘wonder-full’ Creation, and making “our hearts burn within us”. Only then can we truly be apostles – witnesses to the Resurrection. We don’t need to rush. Jesus walks at our pace.
“Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here….” (Mark 16:6).
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
They recognised him at the breaking of bread
Two of the disciples of Jesus were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognising him. He said to them, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped short, their faces downcast.
Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, ‘You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth’ they answered ‘who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they did not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.’
Then he said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets! Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?’ Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.
When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them. ‘It is nearly evening’ they said ‘and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’
They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.
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