Just west of Jerusalem, you’ll find the city of Emmaus-Nicopolis. We can’t be sure if this is the actual location where Cleopas, the unnamed disciple and Jesus had their encounter but it makes sense to place this story here.
We visited this location on our Holy Land pilgrimage last year and—fittingly—celebrated the sacrament of communion there with our group at the end of our journey. My favourite part of that tourist location is the playful and interactive icon (complete with face cutout) where you can stand behind the board and get your picture taken as the unnamed disciple in the story. I realize that this might seem a little too irreverent for some, but I love this image.
The whole Emmaus story is designed to invite us into the story. To help us experience God’s crazy story of resurrection and redemption. And, the gospel story itself is so ridiculous that you have to laugh along with it… as God and all creation smirks at the beauty that can be found in the absurd. When I think of that old hymn, “Take Time To Be Holy” … I can’t help but imagine God reminding us that one of the most holy experiences in life is laughter shared with friends and strangers. And so, the historical city of Emmaus is a HOLY place for a number of different reasons.
In the story from Luke’s gospel, we have two companions walking from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. This would have been a lengthy journey (about 30 kilometres in total). Scholars have concluded that the unnamed disciple with Cleopas was likely his wife, which (in some ways) changes the way we see the story. But I also love to hold that truth in one hand with the invitation to enter the story (as the unnamed disciple) in the other hand.
For me, the whole passage in Luke’s gospel works like a prayer—a living, breathing, walking prayer. We see darkness and light. We experience despair and hope. We name those things that cause us anxiety and pain, lifting them up to God in a time of need.
When the stranger on the road engages the two disciples in conversation we hear the two of them express their grief and discomfort. As they speak of their friend and teacher, Jesus, they say to the stranger, “We had hoped HE was the one who would redeem Israel.” They long for the kind of redemption that only God can provide. All they had hoped for seemed to vanish the moment Jesus was executed. The flame of faith that burned within them had been extinguished in the blink of an eye. The darkness around them is so all-consuming that they can’t even see the Risen Christ in the light of day. How ironic is it that darkness overshadows their living and the light only appears in the actions of a stranger breaking bread in the middle of the night. This is the upside-down work of God’s realm. It seems to defy all logic.
It’s not hard to place yourself in this story. We’ve all prayed a version of the prayer of despair that we hear in Luke 24. “We had hoped, O God…” We had hoped that life would not be so complicated…. We had hoped that we would not experience rejection in life… We had hoped that the quarantine would end sooner (or not happen at all)! We had hoped that love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness would be more readily available in our world. We all have our own version of that prayer. We know what it means to lose hope. We know what it means to be surrounded by darkness even in the middle of the day.
When Cleopas and the other disciple say, “We had hoped…” it was like them saying, “we didn’t think the story should end this way.” And Jesus, as he so often does in the gospel stories, flips the script on them. “You foolish people!” He says, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” In some ways, it’s like Christ is saying to them, “Why should I avoid the pain that all humans—particularly those who learn to love deeply and care so strongly—experience in their lives?”
A life of love will always include suffering. We can’t avoid it.
In fact, the more we attempt to travel away from our pain and our sorrows, the more we shield ourselves from these experiences, is the moment that we limit our experience of deep love and belonging. Jesus shows us what it means for God to transform the common, everyday experience of suffering. The loss of hope and the pain that we experience as a result of these things. God does not cause this suffering to happen. God recognizes that with great love comes great suffering. And so, God longs for us to not escape that pain but to transform it so that others can learn to LIVE more fully and more WHOLEHEARTEDLY. The journey to Emmaus is like a prayer that takes Cleopas and the other disciple (with Jesus as the stranger) into the very darkest of darks.
As the sun sets, there is still a flame of faith within them… one that inspires them to welcome a stranger into their home—showing that they still have enough love to see beyond themselves. And, in that dark place, when all hope appears to be lost, Jesus breaks the bread and suddenly God’s light appears in the midst of their darkness. It transforms them. They need not retreat any longer. The light leads them back out the door to proclaim the good news. To join in the resurrection dance as they emerge from that dark place and are finally able to see the sun rising on the horizon. It’s a back to the future moment. As a new path emerges that allows them move with hope into the light of tomorrow.
The prayer begins with the words, “We had hoped…” But it ends with these words: “We HAVE hope!”
This is what happens when God shows up and travels the road of life with us. As we listen and learn (usually through the voice of a stranger) we find a way to move from despair to hope… to have our suffering transformed in such a way that it strengthens us.
When I experience suffering in my life, when I find myself in one of those Emmaus, “We had hoped…” experiences, I often find reading something from Richard Rohr can be helpful. He’s one of those people who truly knows what it means to transform pain and suffering… to find hope in the midst of despair. Here’s something he wrote not long ago. He said, in our lives... "We must learn to be able to think and behave like Jesus, who is the archetypal human being. This becomes a journey of great love and great suffering. These are the two normal and primary paths of transformation into God… This journey leads us to a universal love where we don’t love just those who love us. We must learn to participate in a larger love—divine love. Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith and eventually into what can only be called universal truth. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering, as we see in Jesus. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers."*
The path to and from Emmaus is a path of love. The path to and from the Cross is a path of love. The path that we are on in our lives—no matter how painful, no matter how dark—is a path of love. God is there to meet us on the road… to enter into the darkness of our lives and break bread with us… shining a light into this world of despair. God longs to travel with us, to laugh with us, to dance with us, to sing with us—reminding us that WE HAVE HOPE.
Let me close with these words... Irish American poet, Lola Ridge, in one of her works she reminds us who we are as humans—what we have within us. "You are full of unshaped dreams… you are laden with beginnings… there is hope within you…”
The story of the Road to (and from) Emmaus is a story of new beginnings. It is a story of unshaped dreams forming into something beautiful. Our story is a story of new beginnings. Our story is a story of unshaped dreams. Friends, we have hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation (2013) “Great Love and Great Suffering”