The Way Forward
Third Sunday of Easter (A) | Fr Richard Conrad contemplates Jesus the Wayfarer who has gone far ahead of us to prepare the way for us.
Quite a few Christian artists have depicted the moment of recognition at Emmaus, as Caravaggio did in the masterpiece now in the National Gallery. Some artists hint that Jesus had a characteristic way of breaking the bread, or saying the blessing over it, and that was what made the disciples recognise him. Caravaggio does this in his other version of the scene, now in Milan. Maybe what in fact made them recognise Jesus was the marks left in his wrists by the nails, which they saw when he stretched out his hands to give them the bread.
Other artists have shown Jesus joining the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There’s an example in the National Gallery, by the 16th-Century Altobello Melone. He shows Jesus dressed as a pilgrim: his short tunic is suitable for walking, he carries a pilgrim’s staff; there’s a pilgrim’s badge on his hat.
As they drew near to Emmaus, Jesus “made as if to be going further”. The disciples got him to stay with them, but, like Mary Magdalene that morning, they could not keep him with them for long. For Jesus was a pilgrim; he was on a journey, an urgent one; he had to go further. He was the First and the Leader of pilgrims; he was “the pioneer of our salvation”, our trail-blazer.
Jesus had to go further; the disciples – that is, we ourselves – must follow him. But, so to speak, we can’t keep up with him.
Jesus went further, went ahead, in two ways:
That morning, he had told Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father”. Jesus had to take his glorified human Body out of this cosmos, which is subject to decay, into God’s own glory. This was to establish the state of glory that we hope to share when he comes again to take us to be with him where he is, when he comes to transfigure our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious Body. Jesus did not come back to the old life; he went forward, into a new and higher life, as our “prototype”.
We are still on pilgrimage; we need, in a sense, to be like those disciples whose “eyes were kept from recognizing him”. While “we walk by faith and not by sight”, we cannot cope with seeing Jesus’ true glory. But we do have pointers to nourish faith; it’s in those pointers that we recognize Jesus. There are the events themselves of Jesus’ life, Death and Resurrection, and the witnesses’ testimony which has come down to us in Scripture and Tradition. There is the whole body of Scripture, which Jesus the Divine Wisdom helps us understand. There is The Breaking of the Bread, the Holy Eucharist, the great Sign of Jesus’ friendship, the way in which the Risen Jesus is with us most powerfully – and, like all Sacraments, it must veil the one it reveals.
Jesus went ahead of his disciples in another way. He went out from Jerusalem into the whole world. The power of his Cross and Resurrection has radiated from Jerusalem throughout all creation. Even those who lived as God’s friends before Jesus came, were drawn on their journey of faith and hope, drawn into God’s friendship, by the Sacrifice they glimpsed from afar.
Jesus still goes ahead of his disciples into the whole world; the power of his Cross and Resurrection still resonates to draw all humanity to the true God.
The disciples at Emmaus would follow Jesus on that journey into the world. First they had to go back to Jerusalem to re-join Simon Peter and the other Apostles. There the Holy Spirit, the great Gift won for us by Jesus’ Sacrifice, would form them into Christ’s own Body. Then they would be able to go out and preach the Good News.
Their mission is ours, whether we exercise it by missionary work in the strict sense, or by local forms of ministry – or by prayer in which we hold the whole world before God.
In our mission, we are following Jesus, and he still goes ahead of us. For, as St John Paul suggested in his first Encyclical, Christ marks out the way, the missionary way, the Church must take. We are, each of us, charged in some way to bring the Good News to those who need it, and this is because we are caught up in Christ’s own journey to each human being. When we reach anyone, however, we will find that Jesus has got there first, with his Gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus and the Spirit will be there already, awakening the thirst for truth and goodness.
Photograph of Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery Collection) from the Wikipedia Commons.