Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him … As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
Every year as Easter approaches, as the buds start to form on the trees and the first Crocuses push through the dirt, we come once again to this story of resurrection.
Two disciples are leaving Jerusalem for the long, desultory walk back to their village. The events of the previous week have left them exhausted, despairing; they have lost a friend, teacher and master to the cruelest form of death. The Romans crucified only those they wished to shame; and the disgrace of Jesus dying on the cross could only have made his death and their grief and loss all the worse.
It is at this moment, consumed with sorrow, their life in tatters, their future in doubt, that the two disciples are met by the risen Christ, there on the road home.
But it is at this particular point in the story that something stranger still happens. They do not recognize him. In fact, the writer of Luke’s gospel tell us that their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
This enigmatic note always leaves me puzzled. We are not told who or what prevents them from recognition of someone they presumably knew well. Is it their own grief blinding them to the reality of Jesus’ recognition? Does God somehow close off their capacity to see, until a more appropriate moment? Or is it simply that this moment is so removed from all previous experience, so divorced from the categories of understanding that shaped their lives, that they cannot comprehend that what was clearly dead is still living?
In our time, with all of its soaring technological and scientific achievement, with categories of knowledge and experience set firmly and absolutely, we can fall victim to the same blindness. Too easily we share the disciples unwillingness to accept that there are things beyond our capacity to understand or control; that there is always more to come from God’s deep resolve to reorder the terms of our existence to our blessing and benefit.
We can also fall victim to the temptation to see in this story only the promise of life in the hereafter. We should be cautious about this as well. Even as people of faith bend our more fervent hopes towards the promise that death does not bring to a close the lives of those we love, we must be open to how the Resurrection speaks into the living world. It should be our hope as well that God raises Jesus to invest the breathing world with a renewed sense of promise and possibility; that older habits and understandings can and must give way to the new life breaking out around us.
The story of the disciples walking home to Emmaus on the first Easter morning long ago has been one of my favorite pieces of scripture for many years. During the three years I spent serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, in southern Africa, I would walk – almost every weekend – along the dirt road out of our Ribaneng, the community in which I lived, looking for a ride to the junction with the national road and a bus to the capital or wherever else I was going.
In Sesotho, ribaneng means ‘place of refuge.’ It was my home; the place where people knew and sheltered me for three years. But, it was along that road that I recall hearing God’s call to ministry for the first time. The people living at the other end of that long dirt road had named their village Emmaus.
The great resurrection stories bless us each Easter season with the reminder that as cherished as home can be to us, there is always grace, understanding and love to be found in walking along new roads, and knowing that in our venturing out from our places of refuge, God will find us and shape our living in new ways.
Blessings to you all this Easter.