Peace be with you. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to celebrate the 50th Anniversary Mass of my Aunt and Uncle in Perry, Iowa. It was an honor to do that, not only because of the milestone of being with great people who have faithfully lived the sacrament of matrimony for fifty years but because the church my Aunt and Uncle attend, St. Patrick’s Church in Perry, is the same one my Grandma and Grandpa Schott attended and my Great Grandma and Grampa Haberer attended. There have been untold numbers of family baptisms, confirmations, first communions, confessions, and weddings in this sacred space. I generally don’t get nervous about celebrating Mass anymore but I was shaking at this one. Still there was something comforting as well. I told the congregation that, on top of the family members present, it felt like I was praying with generations and generations of family there.
Today’s gospel tells the well-known story of the encounter of two of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Even though it’s probably one of the most recounted resurrection stories in the New Testament, there’s something about it that makes it very unusual. In most accounts of the resurrection, the particular gospel writer seems to go to great lengths to mention details that prove Jesus’ “bodiliness”. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fall down and hold on to the feet of Jesus. And, right after this story of the Road to Emmaus, Luke tells of Jesus appearing to the disciples and eating fish with them. One of the main reasons for these “bodily” details was to prove the reality of the resurrection. Jesus did not come back as an angel or a ghost or a purely spiritual presence. Nor was the resurrection simply a result of nostalgic story-telling, sort of like if someone yesterday had shared a memory about Grandma and Grandpa volunteering at their parish. I may feel closer to them through knowledge of their actions but hearing the story doesn’t make them bodily present in such a way that I can touch them or eat and drink with them. The only way that the gospel stories of Jesus resurrection make any sense is if, as St. Peter said in the first reading, Jesus was not “abandoned to the depths of the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption.”
That’s, in some way, what makes the story of the Road to Emmaus so strange. On Easter Sunday, two of Jesus’s disciples are walking back to a relatively unknown suburb of Jerusalem called Emmaus, probably after observing the Passover sacrifice and Sabbath rest. They approach an unknown stranger walking in the same direction and, as hospitality would have demanded, they invite him to walk with them. It says that their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. But why? Possibly because of grief and feelings of disappointment, as is evidenced by their statement that “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel…” They go on, as would have been typical of the time, to completely discount the stories of the women who were witnesses of the angel and the empty tomb in a kind of first-century way of “mansplaining” away what their hearts, minds and eyes were foolishly unable or unwilling to see.
The story reaches its confusing climax as the disciples reach their house, invite in this stranger and ask him to act as a rabbi blessing their meal. Using the same verbs that he used to describe the feeding of the 5000 and the last supper, Luke recounts that Jesus “took the 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.” Wait, what? Just when they could have fallen on the ground in prostration and grabbed onto his feet or just at the point that the Lord could have eaten the bread that was in his hands and given the it to his disciples to eat, he disappears. Why didn’t the Lord wait just a few seconds for something more bodily to happen then simply lifting some blessed pita bread off the table as proof that he was really resurrected?
Part of it is connected to chapter 3 of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve ate from the three of knowledge, it says that their eyes were opened and they recognized, in shame, that they were naked. Jesus is the reversal of the shame of Adam as he humbly accepted even death on the cross. The disciples’ eyes are opened to the reversal of this shame in the breaking of the bread. Yet, I’m also convinced that the messiness of this story points to a credibility of the witness. If there was a larger agenda driving each of these stories in such a way that they are not reliable, then it would have eliminated contradictory details like this. Instead, they remain, pointing to the reliability of the description of the event. The resurrection stories are not P.R. tales of fancy. They are actual stories of encounter with the risen Jesus, as it said in the second reading, “revealed in the final time for you who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory…”
I’d also like to highlight another possible reason why Jesus disappeared at the exact moment that his disciples recognized him, one that may drop this into the lap of we, his modern disciples. One way of thinking about it is that God refuses to be addictive. Faith, hope, and love, the three theological virtues infused in our being by God, may make us feel like “our hearts are burning within us” but they pale in comparison to the euphoria of drugs, alcohol, money, and power. When we have an experience of God, especially in the blessed sacrament, it can feel very fleeting and transitory and probably even of uncertain origin. We may recognize, in reflecting on the experience, that our hearts were burning within us, but that experience too will pass. The wisdom of this experience is in the sharing. The disciples had to share this experience with others. They ran 8 miles in the middle of the night to share their real experience of the risen Lord with the other disciples. They became his witnesses. Today’s world needs witnesses to the hope of the resurrection, not just from the professional church ministers but from all who respond “Amen” to their encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread. How is God calling you to be his witness if your daily life?