We find ourselves this morning with two disciples as they make their way along the road to Emmaus. This is one of those Gospel stories that just jumps off the page – it’s easy to visualise, to put yourself into the picture, to take your place alongside them. We can imagine the dusty road and the warmth of the wind. Let’s push that a little further and imagine how they look – the physical and psychological exhaustion; the weariness of the journey that lacks purpose; the despair and the feelings of emptiness. And the bewilderment – going over and over the same facts and questions, unable to piece it together, unable to make any sense of it all. Just a few weeks ago life was so different, they were with Jesus, they were focussed and happy and everything seemed to be fine. And now it’s like this and nothing is fine.
Just a few weeks ago everything appeared to be fine and now it’s like this and nothing is fine. What a difference a few weeks makes. And like those disciples, we are trying to make sense of it all, trying to piece together the fragments of information we have, trying to rationalise the irrational, trying to process something so enormous that it’s really beyond us.
Let’s go back and look at the Gospel story a little more closely. The opening phrase is: on that same day. On that same day that the women went to the empty tomb, these two disciples were on the Emmaus Road. This story is happening on the actual day of resurrection, day 3 in the crucifixion story. So let’s look at these disciples again. Their friend and Messiah died 2 days ago. Any of us who has experienced a significant bereavement knows that 2 days isn’t long enough to have done any processing at all; 2 days isn’t long enough to actually believe with your whole being that death has occurred. 2 days is the start of a period of confusion and bewilderment and disconnection from the world around. That’s the psychological place that these disciples are in. Of course they are weary and confused; of course they’re telling one another the same stories over and over again – that’s what we do in the earliest stages of bereavement. We share our stories; we reminisce; we effectively keep the person alive by keeping those memories of them alive.
Into this scene which is full of trauma and anxiety, another character appears. Another traveller joins them and they are so caught into their own emotional state that they don’t recognise him. They respond to him out of their place of grief – here’s someone whom they can speak to, to whom they can tell the stories that they were already sharing with one another, tell the stories to someone who hasn’t already heard them umpteen times. And then, of course, Jesus turns things on their head and becomes the one who is sharing stories and understanding, the one who has something to tell.
And this morning’s passage concludes with a complete shift of scene – and mood, and leads us into the territory where they begin to see that life will never be what it was before, but that there is something worth living for, something worth engaging with.
For those disciples, that shift came when they were enabled to shift their focus from reminiscing about what once was to being in the moment and engaging with the world as it had become. However wonderful before might had been, that time was over.
There are so many parallels with the place that we collectively find ourselves in. However our lives were before, that time is now over and one of the challenges for us is to find ways to stop looking backwards and to be in this moment. Not many people really believe that lockdown will end and things will simply revert to how they were. Too much has changed. Entire communities have been traumatised; people have been bereaved of loved ones; we have all been bereaved of easy social contact, of the human interactions that provide some of the colour in our lives; we’ve lost our trust in a society that we understood to be safe.
In the words of the song: things ain’t what they used to be.
For our two disciples, their focus moved into the present when the unexpected traveller joined them on the road. He got alongside them in that place of disbelief and unreality. He walked and talked with them, not minding that it took them a bit of time to recognise who he was. There have been unexpected travellers joining us over these past few weeks. Most of us hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of care and support that has come from within local communities.
Many people have been moved to realise that people do care, that there is a heart within our communities to reach out to the vulnerable and the isolated; to support the people who are having the hardest time. Random acts of kindness have become reality for a lot of people – and if that’s not an example of Gospel action, I don’t know what is. I see the Risen Christ in the lives of our communities. I recognise the words and the actions of our Lord in the words and the actions of people who are doing their best for friends and neighbours, for strangers and loved ones. And in those moments, I dare to hope.
I dare to hope that things ain’t what they used to be – that things will never again be what they used to be. I dare to hope that some of the changes I notice will be sustained – the quieter streets, the family groups on bicycles, the couples taking an evening stroll. I dare to hope that some of the abuse that people have heaped upon others simply because of who they are, will not restart. I dare to hope that we can allow ourselves to live in this moment, in this time, in this situation – and to find ways that allow us to flourish, to grow, to become something more – now, as it is, not at some as yet unidentified time in the future.
On the Emmaus Road, Jesus met with Cleopas and the other disciple in the midst of their deepest pain. He got alongside them and he engaged with them; his presence was the catalyst for change. They said to one another: were not our hearts burning within us. Their raw pain was eased; their eyes were opened. The facts hadn’t changed – there had been a crucifixion; the women had encountered the Risen Christ at the empty tomb. But now they had experienced something that allowed them to believe, allowed them to dare to hope.
As we continue to journey in our bewildered states, can we find ways to be in the moment, to recognise the activity of the Christ right here in the midst of it all. Next time you see a rainbow chalked on the pavement, or hear of a kindness, or step outside to clap for carers, know that you are witnessing change. My prayer is for that change to become integrated and normalised, for our hearts to burn as we experience the presence of the Risen One.