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3rd Sunday of Easter

21 April 2023

Acts 2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-3, 10-end (116.1-7); 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-25

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YOU might think that there is nothing new to be said about the road to Emmaus. But, somehow, fresh insight comes every time I read it. That could be the effect of increasing age and a less retentive memory. A better explanation is that the Holy Spirit is at work in each encounter with the story. The Spirit reveals what we need to notice, when we need to notice it — whether that is a detail formerly undetected, or whether a fact already absorbed has suddenly presented itself in a new light.

This is how the Gospel works in us, revealing new insights in old materials (Matthew 13.51-53). It is possible because the “us” we bring to every reading is a slightly different “us”. We are always being changed — by time, circumstance, experience. This time, when I read the passage, two things surfaced which I have, of course, encountered before, but this time they are sharply in focus.

The first thing is a point of circumstance. These two disciples are not — I repeat, not — apostles. They are just people: people who love the Lord. Yet, not only do they see him after his resurrection: they are also entrusted with the new way of being with him from that time on (the breaking of bread). One was called “Cleopas”, but the name of the other is not given.

That is encouraging from the historian’s point of view. It suggests that Luke did not feel free to fill in facts and details when his source did not record them. He certainly fine-tuned his work to suit Gentile audiences, but he would not invent freely simply to tidy up the story.

The fact that only Cleopas is named suggests that Luke is indeed faithfully recounting a tradition from his special source (known as L). From the same source, now lost, Luke the writer must have drawn other characters, such as Zacchaeus, the prodigal son, and the good Samaritan. One simple way to meditate on the Emmaus revelation is to give our own name to that other disciple.

The other factor that had a new impact on me was the reaction of the two travellers to the man whom they met. Some readers will have spotted this ages ago, but it has only just come into focus for me.

Cleopas and the other disciple exclaimed: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Think back a few verses, to when that actually happened. There was no trace there of that reaction — the surprise by joy, the burning heart within. Both of them had felt the moment with intense emotional force. Neither of them had said a single word to the other about it.

Why not? We are not told. We need to use our imagination. Perhaps they had shared silent glances as they listened. Then they could genuinely say together, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”; for the face of each would have borne witness to what they felt.

There is another possibility, perhaps more realistic about how human beings respond to unexpected revelations. It may be that each of them felt a surge of emotion and spiritual excitement, but neither said anything because, well, because it sounded silly. Maybe it even felt disloyal, when, moments before, their faces and hearts had been so heavy, and when they had told the “stranger” about the peculiar news that the women had brought to them that morning, which led to their going to the tomb, but finding it empty, with no sign of the risen Lord.

The story of Emmaus is dramatic. In a stage drama, the audience gains emotional pleasure from the moment, the anagnorisis (“recognition” in Greek), in which one character suddenly realises the true identity or nature of another. Sometimes, it is chilling: at the end of The Godfather, the true Michael Corleone is revealed when the door shuts out his wife. Sometimes, the pleasure springs from hope, like Éowyn before the Lord of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings, or Robin Hood at the archery contest.

At that Emmaus meal, Cleopas and his companion experience an intense recognition when the “stranger” breaks bread. We, too, share that pleasure, as we recognise them recognising Jesus. That same pleasure of recognition is available to us at least every Sunday, for the rest of our earthly lives.

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