Posted April 30, 2020
There are two important respects in which we can identify with the two disciples in St Luke’s Emmaus narrative (Luke 24: 13-35). First, we can identify with them as they journeyed on the way, because our experience of faith is a kind of journey, through childhood, and adulthood and old age. It’s not always easy going, and sometimes things happen that leave us despondent. And although we must believe that the Lord accompanies us on the way, yet often he walks beside us as a stranger, for there is something that prevents us from recognizing him. Often we are so preoccupied with our own despondency that we hardly sense that the Lord is there at all. Our faith experience is opaque and fragmentary.
When Jesus rebuked the two disciples with the words ‘How dim you are, and how slow of heart to believe!’, I like to think that it was only a playful rebuke – in fact, not a rebuke at all, but rather a statement about the very nature of faith. As St Paul puts it: We live by faith, not by vision. We see through a glass, darkly. Faith by its very nature is mixed with unknowing, and unknowing is the larger part of it. Sometimes, to be sure, at certain moments in our lives, we feel our hearts burning within us – or, in John Wesley’s phrase, we feel our hearts ‘strangely warmed’ – and on those occasions we want this homely stranger to stay with us. But we cannot possess the Lord as we would wish. At the best of times, we can embrace him momentarily, but he is not to be clung to, at least not in the way we would like. The journey of faith moves along desert paths.
If that is your experience of faith, don’t be discouraged. Many Christians are tempted to look for another route when faith leaves them with a sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness. But that is what faith is like. There is no promised land without desert wandering.
In all this, we can identify with the disciples’ experience on the way to Emmaus. But there is another aspect of the story as St Luke tells it – a more cheerful one. The climax of the story is recognition, certainty, exhilaration. St Luke is saying: yes, faith is a journey, and those who try to live in faith are sometimes disheartened and perplexed. They come only gradually to recognize the Lord. But the Lord does reveal himself, he does bring Easter joy; he does change our mood and our outlook. If faith is a journey, it is a journey from discouragement to bright hope.
Notice the gradual change of mood and feeling that St Luke skilfully injects into his narrative. The story begins with disappointment and perplexity: ‘We had hoped … but now our hopes are dashed!’ The two disciples were downcast and miserable. ‘Why such long faces?’, Jesus asks. But they gradually warmed to this stranger who walked with them; and when he went in to stay with them, and they enjoyed his company at the meal, and experienced him as the Lord in the breaking of bread, then suddenly their eyes were opened. They blurted out to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning as he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?’ And they hurried back excitedly to Jerusalem to share their experience with the other disciples, to add their witness to theirs. In that way they kindled the first Christian mission, through which belief in the risen Lord spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean world, and not just belief in him but a vivid experience of him in their lives.
St Luke wants to assure us that our hopes were not groundless after all. Jesus’ story does not end with death and disappointment, and neither will ours. St Luke wants to rekindle our hope when we thought we had lost everything.
This year the Covid-19 pandemic has locked us out of the inn and deprived us of the warmth and companionship of the supper. We may miss out on that sudden Easter revelation that opened the disciples’ eyes. Why, we can hardly turn our gaze from the countless thousands who this very moment are dying horrendous deaths, the countless thousands of spouses, parents and families who have lost or are about to lose their loved-ones.
Let us pray for the world and for one another, for all who are suffering. In the depth of our despondency may that stranger become for each of us an intimate companion, to surprise us; to open our eyes; to give us hope for the onward journey.
Fr Tom Deidun