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The Emmaus Story

An Everyday Road

By Sr. Kathleen Coyle

"Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?" (Lk 24:32)

The story begins with Cleophas and his companion traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their outward journey is a symbol of an inward search. But they are traveling in the wrong direction! They are walking away from Jerusalem and moving away from the place of pain! They are unable to face Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is associated with failure. It is natural therefore for them to want to leave it. However, one cannot leave failure behind even if one leaves the place of failure. Life is a process of letting go, a dying and rising.

The two disciples were trying to make sense of failure when Jesus joined them on their journey. The disciples set the pace; Jesus joins them and walks no faster or no slower than them. He asked them: "What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?" (Lk 24:17). He wants to know what are they talking about. Their answer was simple: "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." (v.21) Now their hopes are dead. When our hopes are dead, the future makes no sense for us. They are living in the past, preoccupied with their disappointment, brooding over their failure.

Jesus invites them to tell Him their story: "How do you see your life now"? "How do you see the world"? Before people speak we know their life stories, because owners of stories become more like their stories. Jesus will not minister to them until He has heard first their life stories. Theirs is about failure and about how they can now live with disappointment and failure.

The Emmaus StoryThen He brings them on a journey through the scriptures. He still hasn't told them who He is: "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." (v. 16) He pretends to travel on further. In the end they leave with a story to tell. At the beginning they had no story. Now they are aware and in touch with themselves and being in touch with their own life story is important for ministry.

Jesus speaks to the disciples directly. He knows it is necessary to help people clarify what has happened in their lives, how they feel about it and what direction they hope their lives will take. He puts them in touch with the deepest part of themselves as He tries to heal their memories. When we give meaning to pain we are not destroyed or dehumanized by it. Jesus helps them to put a blessing on the past. In the Sacrament of Penance we put a blessing over the past so that we can face the future with hope. He gives them a memory, a sense of who they are. He gives them hope, the possibility of new directions, the opportunity to redirect their lives. And He did this, not by telling them what to do but as a companion on the road.

How can they face the future? The future can only make sense if there is reconciliation with the past. The story reminds us that we too have a story to tell. We too may be caught in a pattern, perhaps since we were children, but we may be hiding it under the mask of success or fame. How do we see ourselves ten years from now? That depends on how we see ourselves now. We may spend a lot of our lives fighting old griefs, mourning our past losses. Simon the Pharisee keeps reminding Jesus about the woman's past, but Jesus wants Simon to know that people are not at the mercy of what happened to them in the past. Once they are comfortable with Him, He offers them other options, other ways of seeing.

We need to admit our own brokenness. If we deny and repress it, it will show up in our bodies or in the form of guilt and anger or perhaps even a headache. Some suffering is inescapable, but it must be made meaningful. We have to make life out of death – that is the paschal mystery. We are both broken and blessed; we are wounded healers. When we touch our own humanness, we bring the humanness of Jesus to people. It is important to have friends who can support us and to have a soul-friend with whom we can share the key moments of our life story.

Christian conversation is one of our great ministries. We need people who join us on our journey through life. In their presence we can remove our masks, we feel comfortable to tell our stories. It is because we are cared for that we can care for others. With Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet we can say:

Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.

Earlier when the disciples had set off from Jerusalem they did so as two discouraged disciples. Like the prophet Elijah failure, and disappointment were too much for them. While Jesus was listening to their stories, healing their memories and explaining the scriptures to them they realized: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road? (v.32) They have tasted sacredness so they request: "Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly spent."(v. 29) The Gospel assures us that "he went in to stay with them"(v29) and at the table He gives Himself to them in the Eucharist. Because of the mystical experience in the company of the Stranger on the journey and in Emmaus, their journey has become a pilgrimage and Luke tells us they immediately got up and returned to Jerusalem (v.33), to the very place they had left in disappointment and discouragement, the place of failure.

We too have been blessed by a stranger who walked into our lives, who lived our life and died our death. We've been asked to do the same; for this is the stranger who according to Paul, left within our hearts the same power He carried in His own (Eph. 1:18-20). Trusting the stranger means preparing for the coming of each new person who walks into our lives; it is a promise to walk with them on the journey of all journeys, the journey within. 

The road to Emmaus is not a road of the past; it is an everyday road. Someone is still walking along side us, explaining the scriptures to us and breaking bread with us, causing our hearts to burn within us. He asks us what we are talking about on the road, and He gives us the possibility to redirect our lives. The symbol of journey inspires and speaks to our hearts, and helps hold together important emphases of our spirituality.

We may wish to remember the people who have listened to our stories or the words or events that caused our hearts to burn within us. These have inspired us on our spiritual journey through our years of commitment and service. They have helped us clarify for ourselves and find meaning in the events of our lives and seek possibilities and options for directing our lives. They have helped us to be nourished by divine energy and to taste sacredness. The opportunity to offer hospitality, is a reminder to us to be hospitable to the stranger and the migrant, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

Cleophas' companion is unnamed in Luke's narrative. Like the Beloved Disciple, the Royal Official, the Samaritan Woman, the Paralytic at the Pool the disciple on the road to Emmaus is nameless. We are that nameless disciple, Cleophas' companion, and Jesus joins us even when we are walking away from the cross! He is present to us in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary moments as we travel along life's journey. We too can say: Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked to us on the road?

Columban Sr. Kathleen Coyle provided this reflection. 


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Columban logoThe Columbans are a society of missionaries, including priests and lay people, who minister to people of various cultures as a way of witnessing to the universal love of God.

We go in the name of the Church to announce, by deed and word, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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