Easter 3 Year A 2020
Today’s Gospel story of the encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus reminds of us a wisdom that it easily forgotten in times of fear and stress; the difficult truth pithily expressed by the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Cleopas and his companion have lived through what seems to them a tragic disaster, the crucifixion of their Lord and the extinction of all their hopes. They are returning home from Jerusalem in despair. They have heard others testifying to the Resurrection but for them that news is so improbable that it is impossible to believe. The unrecognised stranger who accompanies them on the road to Emmaus encourages them to revisit the scriptures in which their beliefs are grounded and to find there teachings which make sense of the traumatic experiences of the past few days and of the testimony to the Resurrection which they have heard.
This a helpful Gospel in a time of anxiety, uncertainty and the grief for it reminds us of the truth that the Risen Christ walks alongside us, even in those times when it is difficult or impossible to recognise his presence. Even in that difficulty, that impossibility, Christ is with us, the Christ who, on the Cross questioned the absence of God, using the words which begin the twenty-second Psalm:
“My God, my God, who have you forsaken me?”
For Cleopas and his companion, the move from despair to hope, from a sense of God’s absence to a realisation of the presence of the Risen Christ, was possible because they stopped talking and started listening. At the beginning of the passage we read that:
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
The talking and discussing were, perhaps, the reason why they were unable to recognise that Jesus was present with them. It was through listening that they began to gain the perspective that would enable them to see that Jesus was present rather than absent. When they reach their destination they want to go on listening, they ask their unknown companion to stay with them and it is then, in the moment of the blessing, breaking and sharing of the bread that they recognise Jesus and recollect how they felt during the walk with him:
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
An experience of that “understanding of life backwards” of which Kierkegaard wrote. And so the story reminds us of the value, in dark times, of stilling our hearts, of listening and of engaging with scripture.
The Road to Emmaus was also, for Cleopas and his companion, the road back to normal life. They had been followers of Jesus. They had expected him to inaugurate a new order and to put everything right and those hopes had been dashed. They were returning to the jobs and routines that they had abandoned when they became disciples. They were seeking the comfort that normality can bring.
For us at the present, the road back to normality seems very inviting. If only it was possible to visit relatives who stay in care homes. If only we could get back to having friends round for a meal. If only I could hold that birthday celebration. If only we could go on holiday. If only the shops could re-open. If only the churches could re-open. It’s a natural and understandable instinct. In so many ways it is a good instinct, because (as we are painfully discovering) there is much in our normal lives which is good and fruitful. But the present crisis challenges us to think carefully about the normality to which we might return. It was not a normality that was safe, comfortable and just for everyone.
The rough sleepers of Edinburgh were not being housed in the relative luxury of the Old Waverley Hotel. Is the return to normality for them going to mean joining the queue for the limited shelter offered by Bethany, the Salvation Army and other charities or camping out in the waste ground by the former Murrayfield railway station? The care workers, many of them from abroad, who have risked and, in some cases, lost their lives looking after vulnerable people during the Pandemic were mostly earning the minimum wage, though their work is skilled and requires deep human resources of patience and love. Is a normality which values them so little one to which we should return? It was normal for a high proportion of flats in our city centre to be advertised on AirB&B for short lets at high rents rather than available to local people for a fair rent. Is that a defensible normality? Among the results of the lockdown have been cleaner air in our cities, cleaner rivers and a drastic reduction in car use and in air travel. Will a return to normal mean a return to dangerous levels of pollution and the imminent threat posed by global warming?
A return to normal was not to be the experience of Cleopas and his fellow traveller. They had thought that Emmaus was to be there destination, but it turned out to be a turning point. Recognising the Risen Christ led to them returning to Jerusalem and witnessing to the Resurrection. Their discipleship was renewed and, according to tradition, Cleopas went on to be one of the Seventy Apostles, one of the leaders of the early Church. That’s a reminder of our calling to pray that for us and for our leaders, the Pandemic may be, like the disciples’ journey to Emmaus, an eye-opening experience. Let us pray and work for a new normality, informed by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.