This edition of the blog focuses on the biblical story of the road to Emmaus. It is such a rich narrative that it felt appropriate to devote the blog to it, bearing in mind the current realities. Next week we will revert to collecting a wide variety of prayers, poems and reflections.
Director of Lay Discipleship
This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading is the story of an unknown Jesus travelling with two of his disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus and making himself known in the breaking of bread.
It is a story that I have cherished for as long as I can remember. It leads us deep into the elusiveness which for me is one of the glories of our Christian faith. The tale of that mysterious figure who accompanies two grieving travellers can, and does, address Christ’s later disciples at so many levels, and certainly speaks to us in these difficult days. As Jesus Christ is for Christians a prism through which the mystery of God’s gracious encounter with humanity can be viewed with a particular intensity, so in turn the road to Emmaus becomes a prism through which to view the story of Christ himself.
The story is deeply sacramental. The risen Jesus is finally revealed to his friends when he blesses and breaks bread for them. The incarnation and the resurrection interpret each other. Yet I cherish the fact that no sooner have the disciples realised who he is that Jesus disappears from their sight. I may be slightly biased here (!) but I find this deeply congruous with what I believe to be an Anglican understanding of the sacramental tradition which sets alongside the reality of the transfiguration of material elements a deep acceptance of transience and anticipation.
The ruins of the Byzantine church of Emmaus/Imwas
That understanding is reinforced for me by my experience of living in the Holy Land for five years. By their very nature holy places are not on the whole good symbols of what is transitory, They reflect the church’s attempts over the centuries to create permanent places where we can hold on to God at our leisure, and not allow him to disappear inconveniently half way through a meal. So I appreciate the fact that in the Holy Land today there are four sites which claim the title of ‘Emmaus’ – but none of which can indisputably claim to be ‘the’ place! The very multiplicity of Emmauses (Qubeibeh, Abu Ghosh, Motza, Imwas) somehow helps to preserve them to stand as appropriate witnesses to the Risen Jesus who comes so elusively to those two grief stricken travellers. On one unforgettable Easter Monday years ago, I walked with a group of friends to all four Emmauses – a journey which the current realities in Israel and Palestine would now make impossible.
Perhaps appropriately ‘Emmaus’ has featured prominently in a piece of writing that I have been involved with over the past year. I was honoured to be invited by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to write their Lent course for 2020. I was asked to offer a course which focuses on the Bible (partly because the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is keeping 2020 as ‘the Year of the Word’). But other than that I was given free-rein as to what to offer. Sometimes such freedom can be difficult. I found myself ‘faffing’ around for several months trying to decide on my starting point! But then one day just over a year ago I was having a conversation with a young man to whom I was acting as a theological mentor on our diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme – which allows young people who are exploring the possibility of ordination to spend a year in one of the chaplaincies of our diocese. This particular person was working in the Anglican chaplaincy in Lyon. We were having a discussion about a study group that he was organising for the young people of the chaplaincy that took the story of the Road to Emmaus as a starting point. He had based the study group around significant sentences in that story of Jesus … their eyes were kept from recognising him… they stood there looking sad… we had hoped that he was to be the one to redeem Israel… were not our hearts burning within us… while he was opening the scriptures to us. And when he mentioned those last two… I knew that I had found my inspiration. I had been asked to write a Lent course that engaged with the Bible – what better way of engaging with scripture could there be than by asking everyone ‘what passage of scripture makes your heart burn within you’! The title of the course comes from that musing of the Emmaus road disciples who had marvelled about how their hearts burned when Jesus ‘opened the scriptures’ to them. As I commented in the course material there is clearly intended to be a connection between Jesus opening the scriptures and the opening of their own eyes to see at last who their travelling companion really was.
Visiting the Crusader church of Abu Ghosh/Emmaus
So, from the starting point of inviting participants to reflect on what biblical passages makes THEIR heart burn within them, the course explored what I call the great biblical themes of God’s presence, God’s absence, ‘face to face’, joy, sorrow, weeping and laughter, love and sacrifice. Of course over the weeks of this Lent we, in western Europe, have found our lives increasingly being dominated by the virus, and groups such as Lent groups have had to meet virtually rather than physically. Fortunately the course material was available on line on the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website. And it has become apparent that such reflection on those profound biblical strands has been helpful to people at this particular time. So although the course was not designed with the current realities in mind, it may be a useful resource for people to explore, as Lent moves into Easter. It ends in fact with a short post-Easter reflection on the Road to Emmaus. The material will still be available for the foreseeable future on the CTBI website. https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Lent-2020-study-for-website.pdf.pagespeed.ce.0WLRTuDR8q.pdf You might like to look particularly at the post-Easter reflection it contains on the encounter at Emmaus.
It is interesting that for most of us these days, worship is happening in our ‘dining rooms’ rather than church buildings. Was it not perhaps Cleopas’ own dining room where he recognised the risen Jesus? And for many of us the elusiveness of Emmaus resonates deeply with the ambiguities our own current sacramental experience, which seem in a profound way to be holding together both sorrow and joy. In God’s providence Emmaus may be the resurrection story for these difficult days.
- ‘Their eyes were kept from recognising him’
- ‘ They stood still, looking sad’
- ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’
- ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer?’
- ‘He interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures’
- ‘Stay with us’
- ‘He took bread, blessed and broke it’
- ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’
Diocesan Prayer linked to Rule of Life (which alludes to Emmaus)
Jesus our Way, Lord of the journey,
Surprising stranger of the Emmaus Road,
Guide to the spacious welcome of your Father’s home,
Companion both of our sorrows and our joys.
We thank you for these lands in which we are both guests and hosts.
Walk together with us,
Enabling us to be true signs of your presence.
Stretch our hearts and minds and spirits,
Open our eyes and set our hearts on fire with love for you,
To share with you in transfiguring this cherished world,
For your honour and glory. Amen
Reflection on the Rule of Life linked to the biblical story of Emmaus https://europe.anglican.org/downloads/ministry-and-vocations/a-diocesan-rule-of-life—journeying-to-emmaus—dr-clare-amos.pdf