Image: Road to Emmaus by Ivanka Demchuck
Following the Great Three Days of Easter, we find ourselves among the various accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. These come mostly from John but also include today’s gospel portion which is Luke’s account of the experience of two of Jesus’ disciples on the road to Emmaus – a village not far from Jerusalem.
Luke 24:13-35 is one of the iconic gospel passages – shaping Christian spiritual imagination down the ages. Emmaus is a name deeply associated with places of spiritual seeking and retreat – a name that Christians automatically associate with spiritual journeying.
The post-resurrection accounts from John that pose a direct challenge to our received Newtonian understanding of the laws of the physical universe – accounts where Jesus walks through locked doors and solid walls, one moment appearing, the next disappearing – and all that. Luke’s account relates an experience that offers no such challenge to our Newtonian rationality. Luke’s post resurrection appearance is immediately relatable because at its center is the all too familiar experience of minds clouded and hearts set on fire.
Jenna Smith in her article A Blaze of Glory published in The Christian Century, alerts us to the Ukrainian artist Ivanka Demchuk’s painting Road to Emmaus. Demchuk’s work is influenced by the techniques and aesthetics of iconography and in the painting, we see Christ, in white, facing the two disciples on the road. She layers gold filament in a way that draws the eye immediately to the disciples’ torso region – portraying that most significant phrase in the passage: Were our hearts not burning in us as he spoke to us? Smith comments that Demchuk’s use of gold, against the back layers of white, effectively lights up the scene, as if there is a ball of embers in the disciples’ chests. I love the image, both in the text and in this artwork, of hearts burning within us. It is, in this story, so good, such an indicator of trueness and of life. I’ve posted the painting to accompany this sermon online at relationalralties.com and stmartinprov.org.
We relate to Luke’s story on the road to Emmaus because, whether we know it or not – we are all on the road to Emmaus – journeying with minds clouded by grief and hearts enkindled by the fires of our yearning.
For the two disciples traveling to Emmaus, it had been a long and bewildering day. The Lord’s death – yes – can it only have been on Friday? – somehow time for them has stood still – the Lord’s death and now first thing today some of the women reported the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the now mysteriously empty tomb. The succession of these events is too great for them to bear. Faced with experience too huge and overwhelming to process – their minds shut down like a computer hard drive crashing. Numbed into mindlessness by grief – all they can think of to do is to physically react and get as far away from Jerusalem as a day’s travel can take them.
Viewing this story from the sidelines of history – from our 21st-century psychologically informed perspective– we’re curious about the dynamics of the experience these two disciples are having as they walk away from the city as fast as their legs can carry them. Along the road they encounter a mysterious stranger who asks to walk with them. He’s been following, perhaps, at a distance and having caught up with them he asks: What are you discussing while you walk along?
Oh, it’s bad enough this stranger intrudes on their grief, but he further burdens them with his dumb-assed question as well. Cleopas, one of the two, turns on the stranger and in a voice dripping with incredulity demands: Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what been going on there these past days?
As if to rub salt into their wounds the stranger simply asks: what things? The disciples commence to pour out their hearts – the first stage of articulating their grief by talking it out to someone else. They relate their grief and bewilderment, the devastation of their lost expectation: we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And now the worrying disappearance of Jesus body – with only the witness of the women – unreliable in itself – as you know what women are like imagining all sorts of fancies. I mean women – being addressed by angles – really?
We can picture them standing dumbfounded when the stranger rebukes them: what fools you are – not only fools but faithless fools! He then begins a process of reconstructing the broken chains of memory – relinking associations which like broken links on a website no longer connect to the source of meaning. Today, we would recognize that the disciples were suffering from post-traumatic depression – a state of mental shutdown resulting from an overwhelming experience of trauma, grief, and loss.
Luke relates that Jesus beginning with Moses interpreted the things about himself in all the scriptures. In the guise of the stranger, he helps the disciples to begin to process their grief through a process of re-membering. When hyphenated the word remember takes on its original meaning. To Re-member is to put back together – to reconnect broken memory fragments weaving them once again, into a meaningful picture of the world.
There is a fundamental law of psychological life – that the mind only recognizes what it already knows. They could not see what their minds had no stored memory template for – offering a clue into the mindset afflicting the disciples’ on the road to Emmaus.
All forms of trauma – of which acute grief is but one form – interfere with the pattern mapping of memories onto real time experience that enables recognition – that is – the act of re-membering. We know how depression – depresses certain chains of memory capable of restructuring pain and loss – preferring instead memory chains associated with hopelessness and helplessness that simply confirm our current experience of suffering.
The disciples had seen Jesus’ death and burial. With his death all their hope died. They could no longer access the stored memories of him to map onto their real time experience. Cut off by grief from their memories of his teaching, they couldn’t see Jesus because their minds had no way of recognizing him.
As the three men journey on the road to Emmaus something deeply therapeutic is taking place. Grief has traumatized them – preventing remembering. They don’t recognize Jesus because they’ve lost access to the memories of him that could reconnect them to his resurrected body. Gradually with each step along the road – as the stranger beginning with Moses, interprets the things about Jesus in all the scriptures – they begin to re-member – a process beginning in their bodies ennkindling their hearts. By the time the stranger leaves them they can turn to one another exclaiming: Were our hearts not burning in us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?
There’s one more thing to notice in this story. When the disciples reach Emmaus and invite the stranger to stay and eat with them: Stay with us for it’s almost evening and the day is now nearly over. – it’s not only the day that is nearly over but the therapeutic process of reconnecting the broken links – allowing them to map memory onto real time experience is also complete. In response to their invitation – the stranger takes bread, blesses, and breaks it before sharing it with them. Luke tells us that then were their eyes opened and they now correctly recognized the stranger as Jesus. Process complete –memory pattern mapping onto real time experience has been rebooted – and Jesus vanishes from them.
Every therapist working with serious trauma knows that it’s action –as in controlled reenactment rather than words that matter. Over the sharing of the bread Jesus reenacts – reconnecting the last broken link in the disciples’ fuller recovery of memory in real time.
The road to Emmaus is the symbol for our spiritual journey. Like the disciples’ – we make this journey travelling in one another’s company. Like the disciples’, we walk the road to Emmaus with minds clouded by distraction and forgetfulness. Memory templates of doubt and fear rather than hope and courage map onto real time experience. Consequently, like the disciples’ on the road to Emmaus we fail to notice the ball of embers – our hearts burning with yearning for something more.
If we don’t see Jesus – maybe it’s because he’s not who we are looking for – until like the disciples’ we recognize him as he blesses, brakes, and shares with us his bread of life. Only then are our eyes opened in recognition of his abiding presence with us.