By: Fr. James Gross
When we read about the Resurrection of Christ in the gospels, the experience can feel like husking an ear of corn. You can’t get down to the cob instantly, but have to patiently peel your way through a few layers. The accounts of the gospels are like those layers, peeled away until we get farther along in time and his disciples fully comprehend that Jesus is alive. Today’s gospel passage takes us back to Easter Sunday afternoon. Only St. Luke’s gospel contains this story. But thank goodness that at least one of the gospels does!
The two men on the road to Emmaus are not main actors, so to speak. We only learn the name of one of them, and we don’t hear of him at all before this point. Cleopas and his friend were not two of the Twelve, but did that mean they had no stake in the Kingdom of Heaven? Were they simply supposed to let the experts do all the heavy lifting? That’s not the way the Church works. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the laity have their particular vocation—to be a leaven in the world, and a means of evangelizing and sanctifying the part of the world in which they live.
What can we say for sure about these two men? They had made room for Jesus in their hearts. The bottom line is that we can do the same thing. Despite their grief over the Lord’s crucifixion and their confusion about the reports swirling around earlier that first Easter Sunday, they had loved him too deeply and gone too far to throw their devotion away and start over. For them, Jesus was more than a teacher. He was a beloved friend and brother. Jesus related to them meaningfully and showed them the Father’s mercy. That’s something one doesn’t just set aside.
Celebrities will often have an entourage of hangers-on accompanying them at a public event, but often there isn’t any depth or connection between them and the celebrity. The followers may simply be there for selfish reasons, angling for fame or exposure. But with these two disciples, they knew that the Lord Jesus cared intensely for them, no matter how large the crowds of his followers became.
Here today, the compassion of Christ is front and center. The disciples do not recognize the Risen Christ at first. We never learn exactly why; maybe Jesus is wearing a hooded garment that partially conceals him, or maybe the disciples, in their state of sadness, never bother to look him in the eye. But Jesus doesn’t jar them by saying, “What’s your problem? You really don’t know who I am?!” In fact, he doesn’t refer to himself at all in the beginning. His first statement is: “What are you two discussing as you walk along?”
What we have here is an invitation: “Tell me what’s happening with you.” That’s not so complicated, is it? We see a spirit of warmth, genuine curiosity, and altruism. Jesus wants to enlighten them, but he does so by first inviting them to open the doors of their hearts to him and give their testimony, as it were. Sometimes we encounter people who have to “hold court” and talk about themselves, or else they completely lose interest in the conversation. Christian empathy asks about the well-being of others, not only for the sake of etiquette, but for its own sake. The disciples experienced that concern first, and thus were able to absorb what Jesus had to say next.
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Christ’s victory would come, not through escaping tribulation, but by embracing it. This remains a paradox and folly in the eyes of the world. To them Jesus’ suffering could only mean defeat and destruction. But it is our own demise that he destroyed. We lift high the cross of Christ because, awful as it was, it was not the end of him.
“He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” The sequence of those statements is intentional, because they represent what happens at the celebration of every Mass. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the ritual unfolds in precisely that order. We declare without a shadow of a doubt that “Breaking of the Bread” refers to meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. The disciples’ eyes were opened once they arrived in Emmaus and Our Lord gave himself to them in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Many non-Catholic commentaries tend to gloss over these last verses of today’s gospel reading, arguing that what St. Luke refers to is a symbolic experience disengaged from their senses. Luckily for us, we don’t need to play down this scripture passage or try to explain it away; our identity flows from this moment! At every Mass we attend, we re-create this table setting at Emmaus.
Do we really believe that we are meeting the living God, the greatest love of our lives, when we celebrate the Eucharist? Do we reinforce this attitude by the way we dress, the way we prepare ourselves ahead of time, and the way we behave while we are here? The Lord has truly risen. He is here in this place. And when we take leave of his house, he is inside of us. Let’s make sure that he is at home there.