By Kathleen Coyle, SSC
Kathleen Coyle, S.S.C. is a faculty member of the EAPI and teaches Systematic Theology at Maryhill School of Theology, Manila. She lectures and gives retreats in Korea, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Her book Mary in the Christian Tradition, (Mystic, CT: XXIII Publications) in its revised Asian edition, has been translated into Portuguese in Brazil. A frequent contributor to theological journals, she is presently editor of the East Asian Pastoral Review.
Were not our hearts burning within us
while he was talking to us on the road? (Luke 24:32)
The story begins with Cleophas and his companion traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their outward journey is a symbol of an inward search. But they are traveling in the wrong direction! In the midst of the paschal events they are going to Emmaus, "about seven miles (away) from Jerusalem" (Lk 24:13). They are walking away from the place of pain! "They are walking away from God’s design of the journey of the Son of God from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and of the Christian community from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth" (Maloney 2001:221). Jerusalem is associated with failure so they are unable to face it. It is natural for them then to want to leave it. However, even if one leaves the place of failure, one can’t leave failure behind. Life is a process of either moving away from or moving towards something. It involves a letting go, a dying and a rising.
The two disciples are trying to make sense out of failure when Jesus joins them on their journey. In their sadness and disappointment they do not recognize Jesus (vv.15-17). They set the pace; Jesus joins them and walks neither faster nor slower than they. He asks them: What are you discussing with each other as you walk along? (24:17). He wants to know what they are concerned about. Their answer is simple: We had hoped He was the one to redeem Israel. (v.21). Now their hopes are dead, and when our hopes are dead the future makes no sense to us. They are living in the past, preoccupied with their disappointment, brooding over their failure.
Jesus invites them to tell their story: Tell me your story! How do you see your life now? How do you see the world? Before people speak we know their life stories; they are written on their faces because owners of stories become more like their stories. We too become like our stories. Jesus will not minister to the disciples until he has first heard their life stories. Theirs is about failure and about how they can now live with disappointment and failure. We too have a story to tell. We too may be caught in destructive behavioral patterns, perhaps since we were children, but we may be hiding it under the mask of success or fame. How do we see ourselves ten years from now? That depends on how we see ourselves now. We may spend a lot of our lives fighting old griefs, mourning our past losses. (Simon the Pharisee keeps reminding Jesus about the woman’s past but Jesus wants Simon to know that people can be transformed and are not at the mercy of what happened to them in the past).
Then Jesus brings them on the journey through the scriptures. He hardly needs to for they know everything:
They know of his life: Jesus of Nazareth,… a prophet mighty in deed and word (v.19); They know of his death: our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him (v.20). They know of the events of the tomb: it is now the third day (v.21), and women have been at the tomb early this morning [but] they did not find his body (v.23). They have even heard the Easter proclamation: there has been a vision of angels who said that he is alive (v.23). The two disciples know everything, but they did not see him (v.24) [Maloney, 221].
And so they continue their walk away from Jerusalem, the center of God’s history. Though Jesus has joined and journeyed with them "their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (v.16). He pretends to travel on further.
Jesus speaks to them directly. Once they are comfortable with Him, he offers them other options, other ways of seeing. He knows it is important to help people clarify what has happened in their lives, how they feel about the happening and what direction they hope their lives will take. (Their direction is bringing them away from community). He puts them in touch with the deepest part of themselves as he tries to heal their memories. To talk about healing is to talk about hurts. We too must find a language for our loss, for our pain, for the cry of the heart. When we give meaning to pain we are not destroyed or dehumanized by it. Jesus helps them put a blessing on the past. (In the Sacrament of Penance we put a blessing over the past so that we can face the future with hope). He gives them a memory, a sense of personal identity. He gives them hope, the possibility of new directions, the opportunity to redirect their lives so they can go and minister to others. And he does this, not by telling them what to do but as a companion on the road. How can they face the future if there is no reconciliation with the past? In the end they leave with a story to tell. In the beginning they had no story. Now they are aware and in touch with themselves and being in touch with one’s own life story is important for ministry.
It is sometimes difficult to admit our brokenness. If we deny and repress it, it will show up in our bodies or in the form of guilt, or anger, or perhaps even a headache. Some suffering is inescapable but it must be made meaningful. We have to make life out of death—that is the paschal mystery. We are both broken and blessed; we are wounded healers but when we touch our own humanness we bring the humanness of Jesus to people. It is important to have a soul-friend with whom we can share the key moments of our life story. It is important to have friends who can support and join us on our journey through life when we feel speechless and isolated. Conversation is one of the great Christian ministries. Only because we are ministered to can we minister to others. In the presence of friends we can remove our masks and, like the two disciples, we feel comfortable to tell our stories. Because of such friends we can say with the anonymous 13th century Persian poet:
Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.
Earlier, when the disciples set off from Jerusalem, they did so as two discouraged disciples. Like the prophet Elijah, failure and disappointment were too much for them. Now that they are in touch with their own stories and have been ministered to by Jesus, they are open to appreciate the message of the scriptures and to return to Jerusalem, the place of failure.
While Jesus was listening to their stories, healing their memories and explaining the scriptures to them they realized that their hearts were burning within them: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road? (v.32). They have tasted sacredness so they pray: "Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly spent" (v.29). We today pray the same prayer and the gospel assures us that "he went in to stay with them" (v.29). He shared a meal with them, reached out to them in their brokenness, and made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.
Because of the mystical experience in the company of the Stranger their journey has become a pilgrimage and their lives are now transformed. Luke tells us "they immediately got up and returned to Jerusalem" (v.33) to rejoin the journey of discipleship in the place of failure, the very place they had left in disappointment and discouragement.
We too, have been blessed by a stranger who walked into our lives, who lived our life and died our death. This is the stranger who according to Paul, left within our hearts the same power he carried within his own (Eph 1:18-20). Trusting the stranger means preparing for the coming of each new person who walks into our lives. It is a promise to walk with them on the journey of all journeys, the journey within. The road to Emmaus is not a road of the past; it is an everyday road. Some one is still walking alongside us, listening to our stories, explaining the scriptures to us and breaking bread with us, causing our hearts to burn within us. He asks us what we are talking about on the road, and gives us the possibility to redirect our lives and perhaps even the possibility of new directions. The symbol of journey inspires and speaks to our hearts, and helps hold together important emphases of our spirituality so that we can travel home to our own country by another road (Mt 2:12).
We may wish to remember today the people who have listened to our stories or the words or events that caused our hearts to burn within us. They have inspired us on our spiritual journey through our years of mission and service. They have helped us clarify for ourselves and find meaning in the events of our lives. They have offered us other possibilities and options for directing our lives. They have helped us taste only sacredness.
Cleophas’ companion is unnamed in Luke’s narrative. Like the Beloved Disciple, the Royal Official, the Samaritan Woman, the Paralytic at the Pool, the disciple on the road to Emmaus is nameless. We are that nameless disciple. We are Cleophas’ companion, walking away from Jerusalem. But Jesus joins us even when we are walking away from the cross! He continues to be present to us in our daily experiences, in our failures and disappointments as well as in our successes. And in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary moments as we travel along life’s journey, we can experience the presence of the Stranger and pray with the disciples: Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road? (Lk 24: 32).
Maloney, Francis J.
2001 "A Hard Saying": The Gospel and Culture (Collegville, Minn: The Liturgical Press).