In many churches this coming Sunday, people will hear the story from Luke’s Gospel about two disciples encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. You may well know the story. Two men, one of whom is named Cleopas, who are said to be followers of Jesus are returning home to Emmaus, when they encounter a man who wonders why they seem sad. The two companions find it incredible that this stranger cannot have heard what happened to Jesus, and so proceed to tell him. The stranger, in turn, cannot believe that these men did not understand the events they described, and so, in Luke’s words, he “opens the scriptures” to them, interpreting for them in light of their experience of Christ. They end up at Emmaus, and the men invite the stranger to dine with them. The stranger offers the traditional Jewish blessing of the bread, and immediately the companions recognize the stranger as Jesus, who then immediately “disappears out of their sight”.
I have always enjoyed this story, offered to us only by Luke. But it was the theologian James Alison (yes, him again!) who helped me to appreciate this story even more.
Alison points to the fact that Cleopas’ companion is not named, and suggests that this anonymity is perhaps not by accident. He suggests that Luke intends the reader or hearer of this story to put him- or herself in the place of the unnamed companion – a way of inviting every person who engages this story into it intimately.
Further, Alison points out that Emmaus is a rather hazy geographic reference. There are several locations in the Holy Land that claim to be this town, and none can be identified with any degree of certainty to be the Emmaus of this story. Alison suggests that Emmaus may not have been an actual place at all, but rather is an example of Luke engaging in a bit of “theological geography”, creating the place name of Emmaus as a kind of stand-in that means “any place”.
When we put these two observations together, the road to Emmaus becomes, for Alison, a story that invites every reader of the story of every place and time into its heart.
And what do we find at the heart of the story? I think that readers today might be tempted to find the heart of the story at its end, when the Risen Christ blesses the bread, is revealed, and then disappears. But Alison suggests the heart of this story is earlier, in the middle, where we are told that Jesus opens the scriptures for Cleopas and his friend, interpreting them in light of what they have experienced in Christ. Alison finds in this an instruction to every follower of Jesus who accepts the invitation to be drawn into this story: that as followers of Jesus, we are to read and understand the scriptures through the eyes of the Risen Christ. He becomes the key to understanding the Bible, and the God to whom it points, in a new way.
If this is the heart of the story, then the aspect of the story that tends to most draw our eye – the blessing, revealing, and disappearing that lies near its end – points, I think, to how we are able to look at scripture through the eyes of Jesus: and that is by cultivating a relationship with the Risen Christ, and part of cultivating that relationship is participation in the Eucharist – to which the blessing of the bread in the story clearly points.
And so this Sunday we receive a double invitation: the invitation of the Gospel story into a transformation of our reading and understanding of sacred text through the eyes of Christ, and the invitation of the altar to the Eucharist, by means of which we are helped to acquire the eyes of Christ.