April 19, 2017: Wednesday of the Easter Week
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13-35)
Today’s gospel reading, in which St. Luke tells of the Risen Lord’s encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, is one of the literary gems of the New Testament. It also summarizes neatly the long and sometimes difficult path the first witnesses to the Resurrection had to walk in order to arrive at the fullness of Easter faith.
As Luke sets the scene, there is, at first, bewilderment: things had gone terribly wrong; the one whom these disciples had hoped would “redeem Israel” had died a shameful death in which Israel’s leaders were complicit, because they regarded him as a blasphemer. Bewilderment then gives way to deeper confusion: these two anonymous disciples had heard the women’s tale of an empty tomb and a vision of angels who “said that he was alive.” But they could not grasp what this “being alive” meant, or what it had to do with the still-incomprehensible suffering and death of the one who was to “redeem Israel.”
The stranger—the Risen One—then begins to make things clear: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” including the necessary passage through suffering of the redeemer of Israel. And yet they still did not grasp what had happened, or who this stranger was. It is only when “he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” At which point “he vanished out of their sight.” Stunned at their own blindness—“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”—they rush back to Jerusalem to make their profession of Easter faith, where they are greeted with a parallel act of faith by the Eleven and their companions: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”
Empty tomb and appearances; Word and Sacrament; the Cross and the Resurrection: in its corporate memory of the beginnings of Easter faith, to which Luke bears witness in this marvelously crafted narrative, the Church held fast to everything that had shed light on the radically new situation of those who had met the Risen One—and those who believed the testimony of their friends who had. The Scriptures had to be read afresh, with new eyes; messianic expectations had to be recast; common acts that had once indicated table fellowship, like the breaking of bread and its blessing, now took on deeper meanings; the very idea of “history” changed, as did the idea of God’s “redemption” of Israel, which now seemed to extend beyond the familiar boundaries.
In an Easter sermon with the suggestive title “The Heart of Stone Beats Again,” Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that this particular Resurrection appearance ought to resonate in a special way with those living in late modernity, who might well recognize themselves in the disciples who wandered down the Emmaus road some two millennia ago. All of us, Balthasar notes, are in a hurry—but to where? We are all beset by “a constant stream of images”—meaning what? “There is so much hustle and bustle. What we can contain in our heads is so little, and the more that forces its way in, the less we can hold.” Busyness, we discover sooner or later, is no substitute for purposefulness. Busyness, we may even begin to suspect, is one of the psychological tricks we play on ourselves to avoid confronting the fact that we are all destined for the grave.
What, then, are we looking for, in this often aimless wandering? We are looking, the Swiss theologian suggests, for what those two confused and perplexed disciples found on the Emmaus road: “the tangible reality of resurrection from the dead.”
The challenge today, as for the disciples en route to Emmaus, is to overcome our disbelief that anything could be so good, so true, so beautiful. That radical quality of the New Life promised by Easter faith, Balthasar suggests, is why Christians are dangerous, and why Christians are persecuted. “Right from the beginning,” he writes, “Christianity was seen as a total, highly dangerous revolution.” Once, in the days of St. Lawrence, whose major station is revisited today, it challenged Roman authorities, who were convinced that the cult of the gods was necessary for public order. Now, it challenges cultures committed to skepticism and its moral offspring, relativism.
The Emmaus story ought also to be reassuring to Christians at those moments when faith falters. As pilgrims have discovered along the Lenten itinerary of conversion, the momentum in Luke’s gospel is always toward Jerusalem; thus, the two disciples in today’s Easter story are walking in the wrong direction—away from Jerusalem, and away from the Cross. Yet their misdirection is repaired by the Risen One, who walks with them as he walks with us, even when we are headed in the wrong direction. He walks with us in the Scriptures and in the Holy Eucharist; he walks with us into the confessional; and in that pastoral accompaniment, he points us back to the right path—the path to the New Jerusalem.
By George Weigel, "Roman Pilgrimage"