‘What happens now?’ was the refrain of a little girl I had gone to see with her family on a recent baptism visit. As we chatted she kept asking, ‘What happens now?’ Clearly, she was excited about the event and wondered what happens now, what happens next, what things are going to happen between then and now? What does the journey look like from this point on? At the time, it had seemed quite amusing but as I reflected on the girl’s almost insistence something should happen, it struck me these words may well have been uttered by Cleopas and his companion as they walked along the dusty road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13 – 35).
Understanding life as a journey is not an original thought but the road to Emmaus reminds Christians of what the road could be like on occasion and the necessity of encounter. The scene opens with two people who have journeyed with Jesus, were friendly with disciples and were clearly expecting something great from Jesus; they expected Jesus to fulfil scripture and restore Israel to greatness. Kicking at the loose stones of the path they talk about this hope, now dashed, and they ask, ‘What happens now?’
Here is the first of our images, two people wrestling with hopes and dreams, with a reality altered but not as it should have been. They had read scripture, they had listened and tried to understand Jesus, but either they misunderstood or Jesus was wrong. Two people trying to make sense of life, trying to see logic and sense in the events that unfolded; a common enough experience to all. We all have our hopes and dreams founded on reasoned experiences and information. Not the pie in the sky daydreams, but the realistic dreams that we believe, the ones which are perhaps just out of reach right now, but are achievable. It can be difficult to discern sometimes between these realistic dreams and the distorted aspirations of the false-self, for the false-self is incredibly good at rationalising and seeming entirely plausible. I wonder if the conversation had gotten into a circular pattern going over the various moments, asking ‘what if’ and ‘what happens now.’ Maybe they started to build a new image, a new way of understanding scripture, Jesus’ word’s and Jesus’ death. When our hopes are dashed, we retreat into ourselves looking for answers from within, perhaps believing we missed something and the truth lies undiscovered in what we know. Then after searching ourselves we can begin to look for those we can hang the blame on, this does little to alter the present reality but allows the false-self breathing room and we begin to feel better.
Now we move to our second image, the stranger enters the scene. The reader is told clearly the stranger is Jesus but Cleopas and companion are blind to this. After some time, Jesus asks about their circular conversation and the response is one of astonishment. Jesus’ entry into the scene is worthy of note, he does not arrive with flashes and smoke machines or choirs of angels; he comes alongside them. Then he asks what it is it that’s troubling them so much. Next, he listens as they tell him of hopes and dreams which have come tumbling down and perhaps of the grief they feel at the loss of Jesus. The road becomes a place of sharing about death, the death of a person and the death of hopes, dreams and ideas. At this point, it would have been easy for Jesus to allay their fears and grief, yet he doesn’t. Instead, he responds sensitively and with humility, he begins to help them with their understanding of scripture. Jesus begins to feed their minds and hearts with the life-giving word of God. In doing this Jesus breaks the circle of inward thinking, of the deadly ‘what if’ and draws them into seeing things on a larger plain. In this moment, our weary travellers’ hearts are set on fire because they begin to see things not from the small self-interested perspective but from God’s perspective. They realise in some sense they had allowed the false-self with its small agenda to distort the vision of God’s plan. Perhaps, they began to see their hopes were too small, that they had made God too small.
This second image provides a helpful image for spiritual direction or anam cara (soul friend). We have two people who have met to discuss where God is at work, what is God doing or not doing in their lives and the lives of those around them. The difference often with spiritual direction to a regular chat with a friend is there is an intentionality about listening for the strangers’ voice, listening for Jesus. It is the voice of Jesus that brings the liberation which brakes us from the cycle of ‘what if’s’ bringing our eyes up to see what has been, what is and what is to come. Jesus’ voice can break the illusions the false-self can cast which lead us to small hopes and make us deaf to God’s call.
Finally, the third image, the meal. The meal becomes the place where it all comes home and so in a sense our weary travellers arrive home. It is the moment when their eyes are opened to Jesus, a moment when the meal they have been figuratively sharing on the road concludes; the feeding of mind, body and spirit. With this final image, we can look back and see a triptych which holds the shape of Christian worship: wrestling with how we see reality in the light of scripture, proclamation of scripture, explanation of scripture and finally communion. All with the presence of a knowing, caring and loving Jesus.
The Emmaus road is the journey all lives will take at some point, one where there are questions, hopes and dreams, and it can be tough. We will seek to share these things with others and if we are lucky we may have someone to walk the journey with us. But if we are attentive to meeting the fellow traveller, the sojourner, the stranger, along the way we might encounter the risen Jesus on the road. Then our hearts might be set on fire and our hopes kindled afresh, not the small hopes of petty self-interest but the large hopes God has for us all. With this fire in our hearts, we are welcomed home and fed at the table with Jesus. But, ‘what happens now?’ From the meal we leave again, as do the travellers in the story, to go and share the good news with others; Jesus is Risen. Hallelujah Hallelujah