Featured Essay

Easter and Christian Unity, How the Emmaus Story Continues to Feed and Astonish

A. J. Clishem


          The Emmaus story continues to feed us in astonishing ways.  If you think you have it figured out, as I once thought, then perhaps it is time to reconsider.  It is one of five Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, and as compelling as any.

          After the Crucifixion, on the first day of the week, two disciples have left Jerusalem and head toward Emmaus, a small village seven miles away.  As they struggle to make sense of the things that have happened, they encounter a wayfarer on the road.

          It is the Risen Lord, and yet they do not recognize Him.  As Easter unfolds, Luke masterfully weaves dramatic irony into the narrative.  Jesus moves these disciples from their narrow way of seeing to the broader God narrative to which they are called.

          My new appreciation for the Emmaus story took time, marked by moments of sudden awareness and fresh insight.  It began at the prompting of Father Jim, my spiritual director who had “commissioned” me to write a poem about the Emmaus event.

          “Why?” I asked.

          “Because it’s my favorite scripture story.”

          He knew I would not take his request lightly, and I appreciated the challenge. What new can be said about a story that for two millennia has been part of the consciousness of the Church?

          On the day I finished the poem, I recited what I believed to be the final draft. I was caught off guard when, in the recitation, I had spontaneously changed a word.  In my initial version, the two disciples, after recognizing the Risen Lord “in the breaking of the bread,” rush back to Jerusalem and to the upper room where they find the apostles in the chamber behind locked doors.  Then one of the disciples recounts how the stranger they met

. . . shared his Body with us,
The bread he broke before us,
The person we recognized as . . . Jesus!

          In my suddenly revised version, the same disciple recounts the moment this way, explaining

How he shared his Body with us,
The bread he broke before us,
The food we recognized as . . . Jesus!

Why did I make that change, from person to food?

          Suddenly, I realized that my interpretation of the Emmaus event would hinge on the choice of a single word.  I saw where this could lead.  I thought about various divisions among Christians—liberal versus conservative, Catholic versus Protestant–over such things as the interpretation of Sacred Scripture and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Divisions!

          Yet, I thought, more than any Christian feast, Easter defines us as Christians.  The Christian faith hinges on the Resurrection.   “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1Corinthians 15:17).  Both the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed begin with, “I believe.”  We are united in one faith.

          Yet we remain divided.   I changed the word in the poem from person to food.  The poem was finished. But I wasn’t.  The Emmaus story continued to speak to me about the divisions that persist among Christians.

          I knew that many Christians point to a different moment in the story as key for them.  Jesus, still hidden from their eyes, helps the two disciples understand why the Christ had to suffer.   “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).  Later, the two disciples say, “Did not our hearts burn within us . . . while he opened to us the scriptures” (v. 32)?  Indeed, this was the Risen Lord, present to them in the sharing of scripture.

          Then I recognized yet a third moment when the Risen Lord became present to them.  At the very end of the Emmaus narrative, Jesus appears to them all in the upper room and says—Peace to you.   The Risen Lord is present, as He had promised:  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”(Matthew 18:20).  Certainly, this moment would resonate with me if I found myself in an Easter service at a megachurch with evangelical Christians in love with the Lord.

          If all Christians can rightly lay claim to the Risen Lord, then why the division, and why do I insist on the Risen Lord in the Eucharist?  It is because—as He, Himself, tells us—the Eucharist is needed so that we might rise with Him!  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”  (6:54).

          Like the disciples along the Road to Emmaus, we too are on a journey.  But our journey is to no earthly destination.  It is to eternal life.  Such a journey requires food of the sort that will get us where we want to go:  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

          The Eucharist is the real presence of the Risen Lord—body, blood, soul, and divinity—a sacrament of unity, not division.  In this one bread, we are one body.  So recognize the Risen Lord in Scripture. Recognize Him in Holy Fellowship. Recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread.  Then take and eat—for He is risen!   He is risen!  He is truly risen!

For my January 1, 2017 piece on the mystery of Our Lady of Guadalupe, please visit my friends at Aleteia.org:    http://aleteia.org/2017/01/01/our-lady-of-guadalupe-23-5-degrees-of-consolation/.