This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 24:13–35:
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
Travel, as I have shared in the past, presents a particular spiritual challenge to me, especially business travel. I’ve done a lot of that over the last couple of years, mainly for researching, writing, and promoting a book, and it’s a lonely business even when one enjoys the tasks at hand. Business travel takes us to different places but usually the same environments — similar hotels, offices, restaurants, and so on. We may meet new people or catch up with acquaintances and colleagues, but for the most part, it feels more like isolation than engagement.
Why is this so spiritually challenging to me? I’m a person who needs companions for journeys. I don’t have this issue when traveling with my wife, for instance, regardless of whether it’s for business or vacation. I can travel with friends and do better, too. It’s that familiar human connection, that sense of community, which strengthens me for those travels, even when the purpose is less than joyful.
We see this in today’s Gospel, where two disciples of Jesus want to get out of Jerusalem after a crushing disappointment. Traveling together on the road in those times (and to some extent still in ours) was necessary for basic security, but in this case also for the circumstances of this journey. Jesus’ disciples were hardly popular in Jerusalem by the time in which Cleopas and his friend walk to Emmaus, after all, and no doubt they wanted to get some physical distance from that situation — as well as some emotional distance.
Still, they had each other for comfort on this journey, and wanted to make sense of what had happened over the previous few days. They wanted to lift each other up spiritually, even though it seemed an impossible task after the death of Jesus. Right into that crisis of faith, Jesus appears, although they do not recognize it at first. They do however invite this stranger into the conversation, offering testimony to Jesus while still struggling with its meaning. The stranger then comforts them with the story of a longer journey — the journey of salvation — and explaining Jesus’ role in it. The stranger sets their hearts afire again without them initially realizing it, and only recognize Jesus when they invite him to dinner and He breaks the bread.
This passage offers plenty of different interpretations, but the journey and the unity of the travelers sticks most in my mind today. The road to Emmaus and back again offers two different aspects of our faith, and the cycle of our own connection to it. The two disciples travel out of Jerusalem in doubt and confusion, but still remain together in their brotherhood of discipleship. That was not just true of Cleopas and his companion, but also of the Eleven back in Jerusalem. John publicly stood by Jesus while the others fled during the Passion, but they all came together after it and before Christ’s resurrection. They had doubts, they were confused and frightened, and yet they held together when it might have been smarter to split up and scatter. They sought out each other for spiritual strength as Jesus’ disciples in the darkest part of their journey rather than abandon each other. Shortly after, Jesus appears to both groups — the two men on the road to Emmaus and to the Eleven. When this happens, Cleopas and his friend immediately return to Jerusalem to give witness to the good news of His return, filled with hope.
The journey of salvation has gone through the same challenges — doubt and confusion, joy and purpose — but we remain on the path through unity in Christ. To the extent we remain in that unity, Christ guides us as Peter instructs in our first reading from Acts. He reminds those in Jerusalem of David’s words — You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence. Peter calls all in his hearing to join in that journey together with the Eleven on those paths, as living witnesses to Christ.
When we try to travel alone to seek salvation, we leave ourselves prey to loneliness and despair, especially as our travels — spiritual or otherwise — take us through more dangerous territory. We lose ourselves because we lose our connection to the body of Christ. When we do experience that, however, we begin to recognize the wisdom of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in Matthew 18:20 — For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them. For Cleopas and his companion, that became a literal prophecy.
We are called to be a pilgrim people in unity on that road to salvation, every bit as much as the Israelites when they came out of Egypt, and every bit as these two men on the road to Emmaus and back. Peter instructs in his epistle that we are to “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” When we stumble and fall, or have doubts and confusion, we are to lift each other up with the hope of Christ.
I’ll still have to travel alone from time to time as part of my work, and will have to find ways to strengthen myself spiritually for those experiences. But on our journeys of faith, we have each other — and Christ always.
The front page image is a detail from “Christ and His Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus,” by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 16th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.