Resurrection stories: one is more stunning than the other. Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. The seven apostles fishing on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus calls them from the shore and, good friend that he is, makes them breakfast.
But there’s something so down-to-earth, so typically human in the story of Emmaus: a tale of disappointment that is surprised into joy.
Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem, away from hope and back to the ordinary lack-luster life they had before they had ever heard of the Nazorean Rabbi. A stranger, going the same way, strikes up a conversation with them. “What are you discussing as you walk along?”
Cleopas is amazed. “How can you have missed all the extraordinary things that have been happening in Jerusalem?” Jesus draws them out:
“What kind of things?”
Cleopas relates the basics of Jesus’ arrest and execution. “We were hoping that he’d be the one to redeem Israel, to bring Israel back to glory days. We’ve heard a few stories about his having come back to life, but so far no first hand reports.”
This is our story. The name of Jesus is familiar to us. In general, we expect that – given who he said he was – he’d be able to solve all our problems, that we’d never have to worry about tyranny, cruelty, war, illness, death. He has not turned out to be the wonder-worker we expected. He was to be our own private – well, savior! End of dream.
And indeed, that kind of expectation is a dream. Jesus does not call us to comfort or self-satisfaction, but to outreach and service. Because he is who he is, service is more satisfying than everyday comforts.
But back to Emmaus. Jesus proceeds to recount a long list of references about the Messiah from the Old Testament prophets. Little by little, the disciples feel their heart swell with excitement, strength and beauty. Could it be true? The stranger’s familiarity with Scripture is unlike their scanty knowledge. The fact that Jesus had taught, had suffered and been executed for those teachings, all fit in with what had been predicted.
Jesus gives the impression he is parting company, but the disciples want to hear more of this message of hope. Jesus accepts their persuasive urgings to share a meal with them. In that act of intimacy their eyes are opened to the real but fleeting presence of the Christ. Instead of staying on the road, they return to Jerusalem to share this miraculous encounter with the other disciples. For them, it’s no longer possible to be content with their old shallow life. The fire that Christ has set in their hearts is impossible to quench, and they long to share the good news with others.
What does this happy story tell us?
First, that until we have come into close contact with Christ, we cannot know what he is really like or what his life was all about. The Emmaus disciples came into real contact with Jesus by listening to him with open minds. By pressing upon him their warm hospitality, they demonstrated their willingness to practice the wisdom and goodness of this teacher. They eagerly cast aside their superficial expectations of the Christ. As yet, they weren’t able to fully understand what his mission was about, but by joining their companions in the search, by learning more about Christ’s purpose and mission, they would be able to penetrate his Word and to find his message of the Kingdom.
Like us. When we start on our spiritual journey, we are beset with doubts, worries, disappointments. These begin to dissipate as we open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives: through study of Scripture, through prayer, through help and insights from experienced believers. Little by little, we begin to understand the meaning of Christ’s teachings: the Beatitudes, the simplicity of his command to love others as he loves us.
Finally, responding to the fire set within us, we can hardly keep from shouting our newfound faith to others. We are compelled to share with them the beauty of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.