Sunday, May 8, 2011
Emmaus: Christ in the Breadline
Fr. Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., a priest of the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, of which I’m a former member, calls the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) a “master narrative” into which you and I can lay our life story, and thereby discover Jesus’ presence in our own journey.
No one today really knows the exact location of Emmaus [Heb. Hammat = warm spring; Arabic Imwas] of the Gospel. Many have claimed it to be 'Am'was/Ammaus/Im’was. Such, indeed, is the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem, attested to as early as the 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome, a tradition confirmed by pilgrims, at least to the time of the Crusades, possibly even back to the 3rd century, to Julius Africanus and Origen. The question of identity hinges greatly on two differing ways of reckoning its distance from the city of Jerusalem. Many biblical commentaries, some as old as the 4th or 5th century seem to support the Emmaus of the Gospel as having been 160 stadia from Jerusalem, the modern 'Am'was being at 176 stadia. Despite its antiquity, this tradition doesn’t seem to be well founded. Most manuscripts/versions place Emmaus at only 60 stadia from Jerusalem, and they are more numerous and generally more ancient than those of the former group. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford) defines a stádion as about 600 Greek feet or 606 ¾ English feet. That would make 60 stadia a distance of about 6.9 miles.
Very probably the number 160 stadia is a correction by Origen and his school to make the Gospel text agree with the Palestinian tradition of their time. The distance of 160 stadia would imply about a six-hour walk, highly unlikely, for the disciples had only gone out to the country and could return to Jersualem before the gates were shut (Mark 16:12; Luke:24:33). Finally, the Emmaus of the Gospel is said to be a village, while 'Am'was was the flourishing capital of a "toparchy". Josephus mentions a village called Ammaus, 60 stadia from Jerusalem, where Vespasian and Titus stationed 800 veterans. It’s likely that this could have been the Emmaus of the Gospel, though it was probably destroyed at the time of the revolt of Bar-Cocheba (A.D. 132-35) under Hadrian. Its site was unknown as early as the 3rd century. Origen and his friends merely placed the Gospel Emmaus at Nicopolis, the only Emmaus known in their time. Similar proposals by some modern scholars of Koubeibeh, Abou Gosh, Koulonieh, Beit Mizzeh, etc., as the site of Gospel Emmaus, are highly unlikely.
It's said that the site of the original Emmaus had a long history of military violence, having served as a camp for Judas Macchabeus (“The Hammer”) in the 2nd century B.C. The village was burned by the Romans in 4 B.C. as punishment for periodic revolts, during one of which some 2000 rebels are said to have been crucified. Emmaus, therefore, seems to have been a place of trauma and defeat. It’s likely that the memories of all this were still fresh in the minds of people at the time Luke was writing his Gospel account.
On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, “That very day, the first day of the week”, the two disciples were travelling to Emmaus. Note that this seems to be exactly contrary to what Jesus had told them to do: “Stay in Jerusalem.” At any rate, appearing as an unknown traveller himself, the Risen Jesus falls in with them as they converse together on recent events and their significance. “What are you guys discussing so seriously?” Luke notes that “they stood still, looking sad.” So common to our experience when life, for whatever reason, stops us dead in our tracks. One of them, Cleopas, can hardly believe that this traveller hasn’t heard what’s been going on the last few days. Jesus presses him: “What things?” Cleopas pours out a brief summary the whole story of Jesus’ ministry, his arrest and condemnation, and his death, ending on a note of discouragement, almost hopelessness. “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.” He goes on to relate that some women in their group had gone to the tomb that morning, found it empty, and had come back to the others with some wild tale of seeing “a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” Apparently, some of the leaders went to check it out, and came back satisfied that the women weren’t so crazy after all. The problem remained, however: no one had seen Jesus.
Obviously, these men, like you and me many times, were stuck in their inability to figure out what was going on, to put it all together. Ever the masterful Teacher, Jesus responds by putting their story about what they told him into the context of the larger story of God’s mighty action going on in their lives, right under their noses! “...beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Just at this point, Luke tells us, the disciples arrived at their destination, while Jesus continued walking on ahead. “Wait,” they said, “please join us.” It wasn't just a polite invitation: Luke says “they urged him strongly”. They’d apparently subconsciously picked up on something about this traveller and his wisdom, and they found themselves wanting to hear more. “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening and the day is nearly over.” Jesus takes them up on their gracious offer, and they go in to share a meal.
Then comes the “Aha!” moment. In the course of the meal, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to them. Finally, says Luke, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him...and he vanished from their sight.” Eyes blinking, they look in amazement at one another, and suddenly it all makes sense. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” This was and is the key to overcoming their and our deep inner pain and anxiety, of transforming their and our memory, of allowing them and us to get on with our task of tending to ourselves and to others with the love which Jesus taught us.
The disciples jump up immediately, eager to get back to Jerusalem and share their sighting of Jesus with the Apostles and their companions. The latter had their own story to tell, namely, that Jesus had confirmed his being raised up by appearing to their leader, Simon Peter. Not to be outdone, the two disciples fill them in on all the details of their walk and talk with Jesus, and the subsequent meal.
This touching story is foundational for the Church, because ever since that time Christians experience the Risen Lord’s presence by sharing Scripture and bread-breaking or Sacrament: the sacred dimension for all our relationships. How can we, as we walk the journeys of our daily lives, help others to recognize the “Aha!” moment of Jesus‘ constant presence? How do we help ourselves and others to deal with the “we had hoped” moments, whether those involve cancer, divorce, war, dreams unfulfilled, love, etc.? How can we reframe ours and others‘ stories in terms of God’s big story for humankind? Are you and I willing to greet the unexpected stranger(s), to walk and accompany them equally, to break bread (literally or with Scripture) with them, to be Christ’s risen presence to them?
“Resurrection is not always immediately apparent...The risen Christ may look just like any other homeless [person].” (Barbara Rossing) If you want to visualize this in an image or icon, you can do no better than to gaze on, reflect on, the wonderful drawing (above) by Fritz Eichenberg, Christ in the Breadline. May it help our hearts to “burn” as it speaks to us.