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Encountering Christ on the Road to Emmaus
The appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the two disciples walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), three days after the Crucifixion, is, more than any other resurrection appearance, a perfect summary of the encounter of each Christian with Jesus throughout the centuries. Unlike the other resurrection appearances of Christ, its purpose was not only to preach and to prove the Resurrection to the two disciples. Rather, Jesus appeared to them veiled, just as he does for all those who encounter him today in faith. At first, he seems to be only a humble wayfarer on the road beside them. In this way, Christ indicated not only his solidarity with ordinary humanity, but his metaphysical identification with us, that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40 RSVCE) For Christians, the first encounter with Christ in our lives is through our neighbor, those with whom Christ identifies, especially those who are afflicted in this life and those who are his dsciples, members incorporate in his Body. (Acts 9:5)
Jesus drew close to the disciples to offer the satisfaction which he promised in his Beatitudes. The disciples “stood still, looking sad.” (Lk 24:17) Within the darkness of their mourning and disappointment, Christ shines the light of his presence and truth. As Christians first learn of Christ by the kerygmatic proclamation and Tradition of the Church, so had the disciples first heard of Christ’s Resurrection by the words of the women and apostles who discovered the empty tomb and were told the Good News by the angels. This demonstrates the necessity of Church Tradition as well as the fundamentally communal nature of Christian evangelization and faith.
Once the disciples were opened to his word and accompanied him on the way, he invited them into an even deeper encounter. Establishing the typological exegesis which Christian theologians would strive to imitate in the future, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk 24:27) He revealed to the disciples especially the allegorical sense of Scripture, going beyond the literal meaning of the verses to reveal their prefiguring of and fulfillment in Christ. Throughout Christian history, typology has been the foundation of biblical exegesis, particularly in the writings of Church Fathers such as Origen and St. Ambrose. The encounter with Christ in the Word of God communicated through Scripture draws us into a deeper relationship with him and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, enlightens us to understand God’s salvific plan more fully.
Like many who have desired the salvation of God throughout the centuries and yet have been disappointed by the death and sin in the world (and even perpetrated by his followers), the disciples express their doubts to Jesus, saying that they “had hoped,” (Lk 24:21) in the pluperfect tense, that Christ was the promised, worldly Messiah. In the Providence of God, because of their doubts “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Lk 24:16) Now all Christians can find a relatable experience of growth in faith with these two disciples; they are not legendary or perfect figures but are real human beings who share our fears and sorrows. Yet Christ encounters them where they are, not leaving them in darkness but reminding them of the certainty of hope which he promised to them throughout his ministry and answering their doubts “with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Pt 3:15)
While offering consolation for their sadness, Christ also lovingly rebukes them: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25) God never abandons us; even before the Incarnation, God prepared his people through the sacraments and doctrines of the Law and the prophets, reminding them continually of his coming salvation and instructing them in the form it would take, namely a perfect propitiatory sacrifice for our sins by the loving self-offering of God himself. By the rigors of the Law God taught his people that none can be perfect on their own; yet by the grace of Christ given by the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins can be truly forgiven and we can grow in the holiness necessary for true and total union with God in the Beatific Vision.
Finally, before departing from them, Christ demonstrated to the disciples the means by which Christians would come to recognize him, to be united with him as a participation in this life of the eschatological “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9) in the New Heaven and Earth at the end of time. Our faith is not merely a philosophy or spirituality, nor is it only a preparation from things to come, like the rituals of the Jews. Rather, the Body of Christ is participatory. Prepared for this participation by the other six Sacraments, we then enter into full participation through the Holy Eucharist, “the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35) through which we come to truly know and become one with God. As St. Paul explains, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16) Driven by this great mission of hope, the disciples then race to preach the Gospel of the Eucharist to the other disciples and to the ends of the Earth. From then on, the apostolic Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
The very signs of Christ’s presence given to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus became the central practices of the Church - and have remained so for two thousand years. By meditating on this passage, we can see the design given by God for genuine Christian encounter, for growth in holiness and wisdom, for evangelization and for the life of the Church.