Last week we were treated to the most significant passage in St John’s gospel – faithful Thomas – and today we are honoured to receive St Luke’s offering in the same vein. The road to Emmaus. Just the title alone gives me a tingle – there are so many treasures for us to mine!
Why did Luke choose to share this passage with us in such detail? None of the other gospels include it, yet at 22 verses; it’s way longer than his account of the Beatitudes, or any of the parables apart from the prodigal son.
The first answer is that he was probably there. He names Cleopas (who we’ve never heard of before) and then mentions “another disciple” – a convention of the time was for authors not to name themselves (John calls himself the “disciple Jesus loved”), so possibly “Cleopas and Luke”.
Secondly, it happened on Easter Day, and Luke was meticulous in recording and presenting all the events about Jesus in “an orderly account”.
But mostly, it’s a journey that Luke sees as a parallel to everyone’s encounter with Jesus. And what a journey! From Jerusalem back to Jerusalem, via Emmaus. From despair to incandescent joy. From foggy-minded blindness to clarity of mind and heart. From a departure weighed down by fear, shame and failure; to a return with “eyes opened and hearts on fire”.
Where do we start then, in this tour de force that Luke delights to offer us? Well, because Luke uses it three times, let’s start with “Ephphatha”. (Well no, Luke doesn’t use that actual word, but it is, beyond question, exactly what he means.)
“Ephphatha” is what Jesus says when he sticks his fingers in a deaf man’s ears and heals him – “be opened!”. Luke says first that the two disciples were “closed”; not open; prevented from recognising Jesus. Then as they talk, Jesus “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures’ teaching about the Messiah. Finally, and most tellingly, when Jesus breaks the bread, “their eyes were opened” and they recognise him.
You see? Is this, or is it not, the journey Luke has been taking each and every one of us on? To have our eyes opened. To see with clarity. As John would put it, “to walk in the light”.
And what you see, when your eyes are opened, is what has always been there, always been true. The disciples, Cleopas and Luke, turn to each other and exclaim, not, “Well I never! We didn’t see that coming!” But, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as we walked with him on the road?” Didn’t we know, deep down, all along that he was there?
“Eyes opened and hearts on fire.” That beautiful phrase comes from one of our Thanksgiving prayers in the Eucharist, and it describes how we are touched by the spirit when we encounter Jesus in the breaking of bread. Luke is saying that’s exactly what a disciple experiences. It’s the transformation that will happen to Paul in a few months’ time when his eyes are opened. It happened to Simeon when the baby Jesus was brought into the temple. It’s what happened to the penitent thief crucified next to Jesus. Luke has been guiding us through this journey with Jesus so that our eyes will be opened, and our hearts will burn within us.
But the crucial thing is: the truth has always been there. For Luke, all life is sacramental – meaning that if we see clearly with our eyes opened by the Spirit, we can see God in everything. Every journey is a journey with the risen Jesus. Every bit of life can make our hearts burn within us on the road.
In the enforced isolation that this virus imposes on us, we can easily be preoccupied with what we can’t do. But if our vison is restricted, there is also an opportunity to see what we can see with more clarity. Julian of Norwich only saw the outside world through a tiny window in her cell, but what she saw, she saw with utter clarity. One positive outcome of this strange time might be to see fewer things, but more clearly.
The poem, “Be gentle when you touch bread,” is in today’s liturgy. It speaks of all that we receive of God’s blessing when we simply hold a piece of bread. It may help us to do just what Luke is hoping we will do; see something that we’ve always seen, but with our eyes opened – and recognise the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.