“Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made know to them in the breaking of the bread.” These words are the conclusion to the resurrection account recalled in the Gospel for Sunday’s liturgy. The passage is commonly called the “Emmaus account.”
The Gospel recalls two of Jesus’ disciples leaving Jerusalem three days after the passion and death of the Lord. They are heading to a town called Emmaus. They are distraught at what had happened to Jesus – his arrest, torture and execution. In the course of their conversation with the Risen Lord they say, referring to him, “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” The hope that Jesus had inspired in them was fleeting as they faced the reality of the Cross.
Their “leaving Jerusalem” has an added significance based on the Lukan writings. Besides being an actual place, “Jerusalem” has a symbolic value in the Gospel and in Acts of the Apostles. Jerusalem is the locus of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. This is the place where the events of salvation will occur, where the Gospel will reach its climax. When the time is complete, then it will be time for the apostles and disciples to leave Jerusalem, at that point taking the Gospel with them.
You may recall that at one particular point in the public ministry St. Luke tells us that Jesus “resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). In the Lukan presentation of the resurrection accounts there is no mention of going to Galilee. Rather Jesus meets his disciples in Jerusalem for it is there that the Pentecost event, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, takes place.
This occurs 50 days after Jesus rises from the dead. It is at this point that the Gospel will now be brought forth from Jerusalem carried by the apostles and disciples to the world. So now, these two distraught disciples are leaving Jerusalem, but it not yet time for this. They first have to come to come to an understanding of the cross and the reality of the resurrection. They have to enter more fully into the “mystery” of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
The Risen Lord approaches the disciples as they walk on their way. They do not recognize him in his glorified body. As they journey along, Jesus converses with them. The evangelist tells us “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” Later the two will recall that their “hearts were burning” within them as he “opened the Scriptures” to them.
Jesus helps them to understand his passion and death and its significance. Yet they still do not recognize that it is the Risen Lord Jesus who is speaking to them. In a certain sense their faith in Jesus had been shaken by the cross; now as he walks along with them it is being restored. Although they don’t recognize him, they do not want him to leave.
They urge him to stay with them in Emmaus even though he had “given the impression” that he was traveling farther. They go into the place where they were staying. Everything comes together for them when, gathered at table, Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them.” As he does this, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” He then mysteriously vanishes from their sight.
One way to understand Jesus’ disappearance is that his purpose has been accomplished; the disciples’ faith has been not only restored but taken to a whole new level. In a certain sense, they have embraced the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection. The change in them is noted by their reaction. They leave everything at once and return to Jerusalem, to the apostles and other disciples.
The mystery of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection is central to our life of faith. Although the events of our salvation are something that we can describe and articulate, they should not be seen as merely “information” from an ancient history. Our understanding of them has to go deeper – into the reality of life itself. Hence the term “mystery.”
The events of our salvation are real and made present to us as we continue the journey of life. Jesus continues to be with us on this journey and makes himself known to us as we travel through life. One of the ways he comes to us, that has a certain resemblance to the Emmaus account, is in the celebration of the Mass.
Looking at the Mass as a whole, the two main parts are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. While the prayers and texts of the entire Eucharistic liturgy is full of quotes or references to the Scriptures, there is a certain emphasis on the “Word” during the first part. This is akin to Jesus’ walking along with the disciples and “opening the Scriptures” to them.
Moving along to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest, representing Jesus, takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it. The parallel to Jesus’ activity is clear. The Risen Lord is present though unseen. We encounter with Jesus in word and sacrament. In this celebration he draws us into the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection. In this celebration we are led to encounter him, as those early disciples did, “in the breaking of the bread.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.