First reading: Acts 2:14, 22-33
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 16
Second reading: 1 Peter:17-21
Gospel: John 24:13-55
Link to readings.
Homilists on this Sunday’s readings will doubtless wish to focus almost entirely upon the Gospel. Luke’s account of the appearance of the risen Lord to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is generally agreed to be his masterpiece, as rich in narrative art as in its theology. More of this in a moment.
The first two readings, rich in themselves, are dominated by the figure of Peter. The First Reading, Acts 2:14, 22-28, presents an extract from the sermon given by Peter following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-11). Like any good homilist, Peter begins with the experience of those who hear him (though unfortunately the Lectionary has omitted this part of his speech [v. 15]). He then relates this experience to all that has happened to Jesus Christ. Finally, appealing to Scripture, he shows that all is in accord with the pre-announced plan of God. Peter’s words are blunt: “You killed him ...”. But what he is about is not accusation or blame but conversion of heart. By raising Christ from the dead, God has swallowed up the the evil involved in his death and turned it into an outpouring of salvation. The appeal is: “You have this second chance. Align yourselves now with the power of the risen Lord”.
In the Second Reading, 1 Peter 1:17-21, Peter reminds his literary audience now of how precious they are in God’s sight, since God has paid so great a cost (the death of the Son) to ransom them.
The Gospel story of the conversation on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35, displays something found in all the recorded appearances of the risen Lord. Jesus meets people exactly where they are: Mary Magdalene in her weeping, Thomas in his doubting, the group gathered in the upper room in their fear. Here he meets the two disciples in their disillusionment and disbelief. One of the many wonderful things about the episode is that by not revealing himself immediately to them but simply accompanying them as a companion along the way, Jesus respects their experience and lets them tell out their story to the end. Only then does he pick it up and weave it into his own instruction.
Cleophas explains the hopes they had rested in Jesus of Nazareth. These hopes ran very much along the lines of conventional expectations concerning the Messiah. He would be a just ruler of David’s line, who would liberate Israel from all the kinds of oppression—political, civil and economic—under which it currently laboured. No thought here for a Messiah who would suffer and die. Hence the shattering of hope at the events of Good Friday, the refusal to take seriously the reports of the women about an empty tomb.
Like Peter in the sermon told in the First Reading, Jesus takes their experience as they have just recounted it and relates it to Scripture. Note that he does so still in the guise of a fellow traveller. Only when they understand how what had happened to the Messiah actually followed out a path indicated in the Scriptures—only, that is, with closure of the terrible gap between what they had been hoping for on the basis of conventional hopes and what had actually happened—will they be ready to come to full faith in the resurrection. Later (v 32), they describe the experience on the road as that of having their ‘hearts burn within them—a phrase destined to ring down the ages whenever God’s grace would lead others, often very gradually, to see pain, loss, shattered hopes contained within a wider pattern salvation.
Captivated by this companion as they approach Emmaus, the two disciples will not allow him to go on his way but constrain him to be their guest. Once inside, however, a reversal takes place. They who had offered hospitality to him find themselves guests at a table he provides. At the breaking of the bread, at the Eucharistic moment, they know him at last as risen Lord.
Instantly he vanishes from their sight. Curiously, this sudden loss seems to cause them no distress. Reflecting on their experience, they return straight away to Jerusalem to share with the others what had happened on the road and at the meal. They discover that the remaining disciples have their own Easter story to relate. In a pattern often found in Luke, the sharing of stories creates a deeper community experience of salvation (cf. the exchange between Mary and Elizabeth at the Visitation [1:39-56]).
The Emmaus episode presents a perfect paradigm of the life of the Church as, fortified by the Spirit, it continues the mission of Jesus. Equipped with the Scriptures (Word), the Church walks alongside disillusioned, hurt fellow travellers along the human path. In the Eucharist (Sacrament) it offers the hospitality of the risen Lord. In Word and Sacrament the journey to Emmaus is our story too.
Read next week's commentary here.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.