PETER tells his readers that the current age is “the time of your exile”. Christianity makes no promise of prosperity — or even security — during this earthly life.
Christ is the beginning and the end of human history: he “was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake”. As Douglas Harnik explains, his Kingdom is visible in every period of human history. “The ‘last time’ is already upon us in Christ’s living presence.” The Church bears witness to her risen Lord when she “embraces” his Way — a “precarious, vulnerable, and dispossessive messianic existence as sojourner and exile” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 and 2 Peter).
The Primitive Church manifests God’s Kingdom in both word and deed. In our reading from Acts, Peter exhorts his hearers to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Willie Jennings observes that Peter’s message is one that subverts “the world’s calling and the world’s desires” in an uncompromising witness that leads three thousand people to faith (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts).
Our Gospel reading brings us to the source of the Church’s confidence and power. It is an encounter with the risen Lord which moves the disciples from despair to hope, so that their precarious existence is no longer a sign of failure, but a witness to his Paschal sacrifice and victory.
As Judith Lieu observes, Cleopas’s summary of what has happened “sounds like a summary of the Gospel or of early Christian preaching . . . but this only underlines where it falls short”. In Cleopas’s narrative, “the third day” is not yet the occasion of triumph, and of a consequent offer of salvation to the hearer. There are only the glimmerings of resurrection hope.
Cleopas likewise falls short of a full understanding of who Jesus is: “‘Prophet and liberator of Israel’ are ways in which Jesus is understood in Luke, but by now he has been shown to be much more than that” (Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
It is Jesus who enables these two disciples to make sense of his life and death. The three ways in which the risen Lord reveals himself to the disciples on the way to Emmaus presage the ways in which he reveals himself to his Church after his ascension.
First of all, he reveals himself in the scriptures. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets”, Jesus interprets to these two disciples “the things about himself in all the scriptures”. As St Augustine explains, “Everything in the scriptures speaks of Christ, but only to him who has ears. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and so we should pray that he will open our own.”
Second, he reveals himself in the sacraments. It was as Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” that the disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognised him. Like the manna in the wilderness, the eucharist is the food of the pilgrim Church during its earthly exile — both sustaining her on her journey, and offering a foretaste of the eternal banquet.
This time of physical distancing is one when many Christians may feel doubly exiled, unable to receive the eucharist. Yet the act of spiritual communion unites each Christian with Jesus Christ, and with the wider Church in which the eucharist continues to be offered. Moreover, the eucharist stands at the heart of a world that is sacramental. It must open our hearts to the presence of Christ in a world made through him — a world that he continues to sustain in being.
The third way in which Christ reveals himself to these two disciples is through the fire of the Spirit. In retrospect, the disciples recognise that, as Jesus was “opening the scriptures”, their hearts were “burning” within them. As Origen of Alexandria explains, such “burning” signifies the activity of the Holy Spirit in believers, as the words of scripture “ignite” their hearts. He unlocks for each believer both the power of scripture and the graces of the sacraments.
The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are a people in exile, “groaning inwardly” for the promised land (cf. Romans 8.23). The same Spirit sustains us in the wilderness, so that — as we read the scriptures, and participate in the Church’s sacramental life — we are renewed by the presence of our risen Lord.