Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Two of [Jesus’ disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The minds of those two defeated men were turned entirely to the past and its regrets. Everything seemed finished (“we had hoped…”), but now they were without hope.
Jesus did not reveal his identity in a blinding flash, he entered their conversation, he entered the past with them; he sifted it with them – but differently.
Their hopes had been political: “we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Deep in their hearts they were disappointed politicians, not disciples. It is not so surprising. It is much easier to be a politician at heart than to be a disciple. There are far more politicians in the world than you would think. Millions of people have the mind of a politician. A politician wants to change other people. But a disciple is one who is willing to be changed.
Jesus listened patiently to the version of history that those two men had. He didn’t cut them off after a few words. He heard them out. Had he cut them off, their doubts and objections would have remained inside them, suppressed and therefore all the more powerful. He listened, and in the light of what they said he read the past for them in a new way. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
He did not impose his understanding of the past on them. Neither did he impose his understanding of the future. He waited for them to invite him. When they came near the village they said, “Stay with us!” He did not impose himself; he allowed them the courtesy of inviting him freely. Faith is God’s invitation to us: “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). In practice it has not always been so: many of us still remember the violence with which religion was forced on us in the past: physical violence in the case of children, moral and spiritual violence in the case of adults. Force always gives rise to counter-force. Many have this counter-force working in them and have become deaf accordingly to the invitation of Christ.
Christ does not force us, he invites us. But it has to be an invitation on our part too. Faith is a mutual invitation, because it is an invitation to friendship with God.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” This language is a clear reference to the Eucharistic. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.” This is how future disciples will recognise him too, in “the breaking of bread” – an early term for the Eucharist.
But immediately “he vanished from their sight.” They will not be able to possess him as an object, nor locate him in himself alone. Henceforth he is “the head of the body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18). He did not call us to be ‘alone with the Alone’ (whatever that odd phrase meant!), but to be the new community. And he is no longer simply an historical figure, a regretted lost friend, a memory; he is the way forward; he is the Way to the Father; “through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).