by Mr. Bob Lane
Steering Committee Member for the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME)
Advent celebrates the arrival of Jesus among us, but it is only one of the gospel episodes in which Jesus’ appearance is central. Perhaps the most compelling one for this advent is on the road to Emmaus, because that is where so many of us are right now.
Two of Jesus’ followers are headed toward Emmaus, or rather, away from Jerusalem. They are fleeing: as followers of this executed traitor, they were in danger. They were also devastated by their disappointed hopes, “sadness written across their faces” (v. 17, New Living Translation). They thought Jesus’ power –– they describe him as “a prophet who did powerful miracles” and “a mighty teacher” (v. 19, NLT) –– would make him “the one to set Israel free” (v. 21, Jerusalem Bible), free from Roman domination. But Jesus was no match for Rome’s power, savagely inflicted as sadistic torture followed by brutal public crucifixion. Like many of us they compulsively “talk[ed] about everything that had happened” (v.14). And like many of us they had reached no resolution, especially about what they should do next, so they headed away from the fearful tragedy of Jerusalem toward Emmaus.
When Jesus joins them, they don’t recognize him, not because his body is now in an unfamiliar state as many commentators contend, but because they no longer expect to see him as with them. The events they describe to their new companion and the disappointment and disillusionment flowing from them have made it difficult for them to recognize Jesus as part of their present reality. What the gospel says about the disciples’ visit to the empty tomb is just as true of these followers on the Emmaus Road: ‘of Jesus they saw nothing (v. 24, JB). The promise he offered them has perished with him and their disillusionment has erased their faith in his presence with them.
They even rebuke their companion for not knowing what has happened in Jerusalem. He, in turn, rebukes them for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (v.25, KJV). Then, reviewing the teachings of the prophets, he gives them a broader context and deeper understanding of the events that had crippled their spirits. In his explanation he focused on suffering, on the need for him to suffer and on his willingness to endure that pain. Their discouragement was in part due to their failure to come to terms with the redemptive role of suffering for Jesus’ mission, so Jesus addressed that in his lesson. They were inspired by his words –– their hearts ‘burned within them’ to hear him (v.32) –– but the encouragement they felt wasn’t yet enough for them to recognize him, or to return to Jerusalem.
They did, however, want to spend more time with him, so they invited him to stay the night with them. And they shared their meal with him. When he gave the blessing, “their eyes were opened and they knew him” (v. 31, KJV). Why now and not earlier? Though they had been excited by Jesus’ homily, it was not enough for them to comprehend what they had to do next. Only after they invited Jesus into fellowship, brought him into their home and to their table, were they able to hear his blessing and see who he was –– to recognize him with them.
Affirming his presence they were able to hear his call, the call to go back to Jerusalem: “They set out that instant and returned” there (v.33, JB). They were no longer afraid of being associated with him, but returned to the place where imperial power had crucified him. Now they were able to understand and embrace the suffering he endured as part of his, and their, mission.
If we are to recognize Jesus in these difficult days we, too, need to make space for fellowship with him, to better understand the meaning of his life and ministry, yes, but also to invite him into home and heart and to listen for his blessing so that we can joyously affirm his presence among us. And then we, too, must answer the call to return to Jerusalem. We must set out for all those places where any are being crucified by unbridled power and extortionate greed. Where anyone is targeted by our very own imperial power, we must share the target with them so that they cannot be victimized by their isolation. We must return to Jerusalem to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and the voiceless in their suffering, for only in this solidarity can we do justice.
God of mercy and hope, open our eyes and quicken our hearts so that we may recognize your presence among us. Our faith restored, lead us back to all the Jerusalems of our land, wherever the least among us, our sisters and brothers, are crucified. Embolden us to walk humbly with you, doing justice together.
In the name of your love, which has made us one. Amen.