The picture above shows two modern travelers making their way through some rough, desert-like terrain. If you imagine them in long robes and squint a bit, this is probably pretty close to how the two disciples looked, as they made their way to Emmaus. This Biblical story has been on my mind lately, since it was Gospel reading at Mass on Wednesday of the Octave of Easter.
The big question that everyone always asks about the Emmaus story is "Why didn't the two disciples recognize Jesus?" I once heard a well known Scripture scholar ask this exact question at a conference. She was giving the keynote address, and I always appreciate the many wise and true insights she shares about Scripture. But, she mentioned that the disciples' lack of ability to recognize Jesus had always bothered her. After all, they had spent a few years with Jesus. How could they not recognize someone they had spent so much time with? Was he that changed, after the resurrection? Her answer was to say that the disciples simply could not recognize Jesus because they couldn't fathom the possibility of the resurrection. Maybe there is some truth to that. I've heard other folk say that the disciples didn't recognize Jesus because he was so transformed in glory he was impossible to recognize.
Where did Jesus go?
But there’s another way of looking at this mysterious “hiddenness” of Christ on the road to Emmaus. I think the answer is just more simple than that. After his resurrection, whenever Jesus IS recognized, it is almost always around food and breaking bread. In fact, I like to read the Emmaus story out loud to the families at church and I stop at verse 31:
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 30-31).
"Where did Jesus go?" I ask. "I'll give you a hint. He is still in the room." I love to watch the young children especially. They turn to mom or dad, eyes wide, and say "Where is he?"
I asked this very question three days ago, to a new group of families this year. As is common, many of the answers revolved around the idea that 1. Jesus is dead so 2. He must be a ghost. Here are some of the answers I heard:
“Back to God in Heaven?”
“To the tomb?”
“To the next room?”
“To the graveyard?”
And then, with assistance from grandma and grandpa, “To the bread and wine?” Yes!
The answer is pretty obvious, once it's pointed out. Jesus has not left. He is now fully present in the form of bread and wine, just as we proclaim at every Mass. We call this the Real Presence. Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist; the bread has become his body and the wine has become his blood. This is not symbolic. It’s a real, though hidden, change, that surpasses our understanding. We receive it in faith, because God is doing something new.
The Catechism puts it this way “At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the Eve of his Passion:”He took bread….” “[T]aking the chalice filled with the fruit of the vine….” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ. (CCC 1350)
It seems, then, that the reason the two disciples didn't recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus is that, post resurrection, Jesus will be fully present sacramentally. He is no longer only Jesus of Nazareth, the wandering preacher with a small band of followers, even though we understand he has always been the Son of God. Jesus has changed from being confined to a single place and point in time (i.e. a very small and local area of Judea, circa 33 AD) to being able to go everywhere and all times, carried through time and space by his disciples, who become moving temples. Yes, this form is unexpected, especially to those of us outside of Judaism who don't have the tradition of the Passover meal handed down, generation to generation. And certainly, it was completely unexpected even to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. But, it also makes sense if you follow all the other covenants that God made in the Old Testament. This New Covenant, where Jesus substitutes himself for the Passover lamb, fulfills all the promises of the previous covenants in a new, astounding way.
The Returning of the Cosmos to Christ
It does one thing more, as well, that we have to realize. This is the beginning of the reconciliation, or the returning, of the cosmos to God. There is really nothing special about the little bit of wheat and the sampling of grapes that are used on the altar at Mass. The divinization of that little bit of wheat and those few grapes points to the ultimate end of the entire universe, when God will be "all in all" to creation. Like these small bits of nature, those who follow in the path of discipleship until the end will enter the Kingdom of God, will become one with the inner life of the Trinity and be divinized. This is the belief we express about the saints in heaven.
It's a lot to take in, really. I like to say it's "profoundly simple." Something to ponder, this Easter season. You can read the story of Emmaus here: Luke 24:13-35