"What are you discussing as you walk along?" They stopped, looking downcast.
We often think of this passage of the two disciples traveling along the road to Emmaus as a kind of depiction of our journey as Christians, whereby the presence of the Lord is revealed in the breaking of the bread. And while this serves as a valid spiritual interpretation there are other lessons that are embedded within the text. For example, how the journey of these two disciples pertains to the moral sense.
The moral sense of the scriptures leads us to a greater faith and trust in God by not just hearing God’s word but also acting on it. Thus, this passage, if understood within the context of morality, gives us not merely a story but an example; an example which can be followed if one desires a certain good end or in this case peace in the midst of struggle.
And in order to frame the moral sense of the road to Emmaus, we must first look at where the journey began and where the journey ends. We notice that these two have set out from Jerusalem, the city of King David. Its very name means ‘city of peace.’ And yet these two are departing from it on account of a certain tragedy, or more realistically because they were discouraged that their good and well-founded hopes had not been accomplished according to their own understandings. And so they set out heavy hearted and with distress. “They stopped, looking downcast.” But this unrest, this lack of peace, is only their starting point. It begs the question, what are we going to do now? Where are we going to turn in the midst of our struggle?
The answer is found, again, in the name of the place that they are journeying to. Emmaus, which means ‘warm-spring’; in other words an ideal place of comfort; and it is situated some seven miles from Jerusalem. This distance of seven miles tells us two things. First, they sought to find a place of perfection, distant from the woes and sufferings they would find in Jerusalem. Secondly, it shows us that these were not godless men since the representation of the number seven also accompanies the perfection sought by a participation in the Sacraments. In other words, these two disciples, followers of Christ, are truly an image of each of us.
We come and frequent the Sacraments, we hope in the Lord’s resurrection, and yet, we inevitably find ourselves face-to-face with tragedy, pain, and suffering. And it is in this pain and suffering that we seek beauty, joy, peace, and pleasure. We cannot escape the paradox of the cross. So the question is not whether we will experience pleasure and pain, but rather what will we do with it.
And the lesson from today’s Gospel gives us two indications of what we can do in the midst of our human condition: one natural and the other supernatural. The first pertains to Christ as He is unrecognizable and strange enough is standing before us and speaking with us. The second, the supernatural, which pertains to silence and an intimate encounter with the resurrected Christ.
First, Christ explains to these men, within a seven-mile journey, all of the Old Testament prophecies that are fulfilled in His person. This means that for all of us, accompanied by our real participation in the Sacraments, we will be fueled with an eager desire to exercise our minds by way of peering into the Sacred Scriptures. To see the one person of Jesus Christ in both the Old and New Testament, causes us to be enflamed with desire. “Were our hearts not burning within us?”
When we read the Scriptures we begin to look upon the face of Christ, so that what was once unrecognizable begins to take on the appearance of a lover. The text starts to lift off of the pages and the image of the crucified One transforms into the distinct image of the adorable One. It is true to say that the text of the Scriptures has a life of their own, and by reading them we yearn for that life. We take our sorrow and misery and we see it described within those pages. We slowly begin to see one very important reality; we are not alone in our pain. And thus our sorrows start to become causes for joy, and Christ becomes all in all.
But there is another way, a yet more perfect way; one in which the soul directly interacts with the risen Christ, and we call this the supernatural way. By supernatural we simply mean the way of the Christian soul, conformed to the image of Christ in baptism; restored to life in reconciliation; strengthened by the unction of the Spirit; and consumed by the consummation of the sacred Body and Blood of our Lord. As was said before, these two disciples, all of us, already partake of the Sacraments; why then were these two running off to seek refuge from their pain?
One might speculate that the Sacraments themselves create within us another kind of pain, a more real and powerful and frightening kind of pain. And that pain centers on one thing, faith. Whereas in the Scriptures we can see the connections and try to prove to ourselves that this whole Christian journey makes sense; in our spiritual lives, the deeper we probe the darker the journey becomes. So much so that the text reads that after they had recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, He vanished from their sight. These disciples even went back to Jerusalem at night, a sign of this darkness, in order to try to convince the brethren of what they saw and heard. St. Mark’s Gospel tells us: they did not believe them. How painful to have such a glorious encounter and yet suffer that others would not share in that joy. And this is how God is working and moving our lives. What He is doing in the interior castle of our hearts is sometimes hellish and painful because, among other things, we have no one who can understand. He sometimes feels absent or downright missing from our hearts. So where do we turn?
We don’t. We don’t have to turn anywhere. We can sit right there in our heart of hearts, in the Jerusalem within us, and we can constantly search out the Bridegroom. We can take all of the pain, all of the brokenness, messiness, the remembrance of past joys and the good things God has given us and we can tie it into bundles and burn them as a fragrant offering to our Lord. What do we do then? We trust. We use the fuel of pain to bring about pleasure, if not immediately in our lives, efficaciously in the lives of others. And what do we do with our pleasures? We offer thanksgiving. Therefore, as we walk along the Christian journey, this lesson of the road to Emmaus teaches us that we can do two things to bolster our moral lives, on both the natural and the supernatural levels; namely, trust that everything is going to be just fine in the end and give thanks because we wouldn’t be suffering if he knew we weren’t able to handle it. Truly Christ has risen, let Him break forth from the tomb of your heart by crying out Alleluia.