Emmaus: a journey in human history
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2002
Acts 2:14, 22-33
1 Peter 1: 17-21
Easter is the season for mystagogy. Mystagogy is a reflection on the sacraments leading to deeper faith. Those baptized at the Easter Vigil, together with the entire Christian community, meditate on what they experienced.
After Easter, the lectionary offers a series of readings that help with mystagogy. This first year of the three-year cycle especially makes this effort. On the Third Sunday of Easter this year we will hear the important story of the journey to Emmaus.
Luke composed this pastoral scene with charming detail. He gives the name of the village and its distance from Jerusalem. He tells the name of one of the disciples, Cleopas, who appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Luke also describes the emotions of the disciples: "downcast," "astounded" and "hearts burning within."
The story is truly remarkable (Luke 24:13-35). On Easter Sunday itself, two disciples, having heard the report of the resurrection, leave Jerusalem for Emmaus, discussing the events of the past few days. A stranger asks what they are discussing. They tell him about the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The stranger interprets Moses and the prophets to show the disciples that these events had to happen. They urge the stranger to stay. At table, he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then they realize that this is no stranger: It is the risen Christ! Jesus disappears and the disciples return to Jerusalem where they tell the others what happened.
This passage allows us to explore many different themes in mystagogy.
The resurrection. The Easter season's primary interest is to convince us of the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. In this passage the disciples do not recognize Jesus in his resurrected state. At the end of their meeting he mysteriously disappears. They learn that he has also appeared to Peter. In the midst of the story, the disciples tell the stranger the important details about Jesus: he was handed over to death, crucified, and the body was reported missing. The entire story is wrapped in the creed of resurrection.
The identity of Jesus. In the conversation the disciples identify Jesus with a series of increasingly important descriptors: He is a visitor to Jerusalem, a Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word, and the Lord. Jesus begins as a stranger, but ends with the title reserved for God. They do not realize it at the time, but Jesus is the one they "were hoping" would redeem Israel. Jesus is their hope.
The Scriptures. The stranger explains the Scriptures. He shows that Moses and the prophets were not simply writing a history of past events. They wrote prophetic words to be fulfilled in Jesus. We still honor this belief almost every Sunday when we hear a first reading that in some way foreshadows the Gospel.
The Eucharist. The Emmaus story describes the Eucharist. When Jesus sat down at table with the disciples, he "took, blessed, broke and gave" the bread to them. Luke uses the same four verbs in the miracle of the loaves (9:16) and in his account of the Last Supper (22:19). These verbs describe the principle actions of the second half of the Mass. The priest takes the bread in the procession of the gifts, blesses it in the Eucharistic prayer, breaks it during the Lamb of God, and gives it during communion. This story naturally offers catechesis on our celebration of the Eucharist. Luke uses the term "the breaking of bread" to describe the Eucharist in several places in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42; 2:46; 20:7, 11; and 27:35). In the Emmaus story, an explanation of Scriptures precedes the breaking of bread. The story foreshadows the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Sunday. The Emmaus story takes place on Easter Sunday. It shows the connection between the Eucharist and the resurrection and sets the stage for the Christian practice of gathering on Sundays, the day of the resurrection, to enter the mystery of the risen Christ by sharing the Eucharist.
Journey and story. The whole event is framed as a journey and recounted as a story. Luke uses the journey as a metaphor for the Christian life and the story as a reminder that Jesus comes to us in human history.
As we reflect on these Scriptures and the experience of the Easter Vigil with the newly baptized this year, this passage gives us much material for mystagogy.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.