In these weeks after Easter, I’ve been thinking about the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Emmaus was a town on a road connected to Jerusalem and it was to this town that two of Jesus’ disciples were walking shortly after his death on the cross and resurrection.
The days following Jesus’ death and resurrection, I think, are the most exciting and compelling in history and scripture. These passages left to us by the authors of the Gospels reinforce my faith, and perhaps they will do so for you.
How is it possible that joy springs from grief?
When one reads the account of Jesus’ last days we are with him. We’ve been on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and his followers. We’ve witnessed the glorious entry into the city, the poignant supper at which a woman anoints Jesus and washes him with her tears, we’ve seen the incredible and necessary raising of Lazarus, and we’ve experienced the Seder in the upper room, and finally the trial and execution of Jesus.
After some pretty amazing moments that give life and hope comes a horrific, mind and spirit-numbing death. So it’s hard to imagine that something good could come of it. If you, as I, have lost someone you knew, someone you loved, with whom you shared a life, meals, joys, and sorrows, then you’ve felt the pain that comes from such loss and the accompanying grief. It’s not hard then, to put ourselves on the road to Emmaus.
My first experience of Emmaus was Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Supper at Emmaus.” In typical fashion, the painting is suffused with dusky colors and saffron light; Jesus’ face is bathed in gold light, he looks wistfully to the heavens and is captured in mid-prayer. The disciples gaze in wonderment.
There’s more to this town, though. It was some seven miles out of Jerusalem and had a history of violence. It was thought to be the base camp for Judas Maccabeus and his uprising, and it was burned by the Romans in retaliation for the unrest and revolts following the death of Herod – two thousand rebels were crucified there. People in that generation would have memories of the crosses lining the road. On that third day after the crucifixion, a place of defeat and lost hope is restored by Jesus as a place of fellowship and love.
Two disciples on that Sunday afternoon walk away from Jerusalem, perhaps running for their lives, maybe they feel lost, hopeless, let down. They discuss the events of the last week and in particular the discovery at the tomb that very morning. A stranger joins them on the walk and the disciples are amazed that there is actually one person in the region who has not heard about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here they recount what they’ve been discussing and add a personal postscript: that they had hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. Let me put that remark in context. There had been prophets before Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah and their message and ministry didn’t strike the right chord with the people. They were executed as Jesus had been, so their missions were considered failures. This is probably what Cleopas and his friend were thinking – here was yet another so-called prophet who didn’t make good on his claims; he, like all the rest, failed and it was business as usual in Roman-governed Palestine.
But Jesus did something different. He kept his promise. He fulfilled the prophecies. He did rise on the third day. These facts, and his message proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, his call to a unique and unconditional love, made this call to right action very different, very powerful – and it has lasted for centuries.
The two disciples didn’t know this. They were so deep in their misery, that they didn’t recognize the man walking with them. This stranger interprets scripture and the events of the week as part of the greater story of humanity and of God’s action in the world as chronicled by the prophets and scripture. Yes, it was necessary that Jesus suffered, died and was buried, but death is not the end of the story. He reveals himself to these disciples in an act of love and fellowship that they would have recognized if they had been present during the feeding of the five thousand and if they were at the table at the last supper — a simple breaking of bread and sharing a meal. Something Jesus did every day with his friends. It is at that moment eyes are opened, and memory and recognition come into play. Hearts that have been lit aflame by the interpretation of Scripture still burn after they recognize it was Jesus, who vanishes as mysteriously from their table as he appeared on the road.
The disciples return to Jerusalem, where, by the way, they were commanded to stay by Jesus and tell their story, which is one of many that brings joy from grief: stories of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus at the tomb, the apostles sharing a meal with Jesus in the upper room and Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds. Through these events, a new community emerges. It is a community of faith built on an understanding of scripture, worship and the sharing of a common experience of the risen Christ. Jesus’ words to Thomas when he appeared before the apostles in the upper room are ringing in our ears: “Blessed are those who had not seen, yet come to believe.”
That would be us.
But we’re human, we have our expectations. We had hoped . . .
Each one of us, in our own way and time, has repeated the words of the disciples, “we had hoped.” The first of four times for me was in April of 1969, and if you had told me then that joy came of grief, I would have ignored it, or more probably, slammed my bedroom door shut and turned up the volume on the Moody Blues, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones – whatever I was annoying my family with that day. I was 15, you see, and my mother had just died unexpectedly. One afternoon she was there, the next morning she was gone. No warning, no nothing. She was gone. The days and weeks that followed were a blur then and still are. It was full of moments I do remember, moments in which I sought answers and wondered how my brother and sisters were handling their grief – we never talked about it. We had hoped, you see, that she could still be with us.
I’ve thought like this, said these words aloud and to God. What about you? I disobeyed Christ, in that I walked away from Jerusalem, away from the pain and memories, away from the life Christ gave me. The grief clouded my sight and I didn’t want to see past it. Years later I walked back.
It happens to all of us. We wish we could have had one more day to say all that needed to be said; we wish we could make things right between our loved ones; we wish it all could have been done differently; said: “I love you and always have, always will.”
Valid and real thoughts, honest emotions, these.
We weren’t and aren’t alone. We were and are heard. As we hope and wonder, Jesus comes into our lives with words of comfort and hope. We are reminded that God became one of us, and shared our experience, our joys, our grief, our pain. Jesus reminds us that on the Cross, God took and blessed and broke the most perfect of lives and offered it to us in the midst of suffering so that all sadness and pain might become a bridge to a loving, sustaining presence.
The joy that comes from pain is the knowledge that we are loved.
We are loved.
God loves each of us. Jesus walks with us.
And if there’s a small voice within that still hedges, still whispers, “Yes, but . . .” Then come! I invite you to his table. Come to the table where Jesus invites you, me, all of us, anyone who is hungry, to take as often as necessary the bread that he blessed and broke and shared and drink the cup he pours out for all humanity. Your eyes will be opened and your hearts will be burning with hope.
Jesus will always be with us on our roads and at our tables.
He is the joy that comes from grief.
c 2018, The Rev. Deacon Ellen L. Ekstrom