This week in chapel, the second part of Luke’s story of The Road to Emmaus was read. It is a powerful story about how we come to know things; in this case, it reveals the way in which the idea and the reality of the Resurrection comes to birth in us through the interplay of words and deeds. The story illustrates what will become a distinct feature of the Christian religion, along with other religions, namely, Word and Sacrament, something proclaimed and heard and something seen and touched, ideas which are received in our hearts and minds. “Did not our heart burn within us?”
The Resurrection is an important doctrine of the Christian Faith but not a concept which is exclusive to Christians. The concept and idea appears in late Judaism and is an important feature of Islam as well. The idea of the Resurrection connects as well to other traditions of philosophical questions about what it means to be ‘you’, a self, a person, an individual, that involves the idea of the immortality of the soul, on the one hand, and the place of the body and nature in relation to the soul, on the other hand, in such things as reincarnation. The Resurrection affirms the idea of the individual as soul and body; the body matters in a radical way and belongs to your individuality.
The story of the Road to Emmaus is profoundly counter-culture in several ways. It affirms the individual as embodied and as an integral part of a community as distinct from being isolated and separate from others and in flight from the world and the body. It is the Christian event that opens us out to the universal event of God as essential life. As such it shows how death and sin are not ultimate but neither are they denied. The past is not eclipsed in some techno-fantasy flight to an imaginary future of our own devising. The Resurrection never lets us ignore or forget the Passion.
Last week we read about Jesus coming alongside the two disciples who were fleeing from Jerusalem in fear and uncertainty. Jesus engages them unawares; “their eyes were holden.” They didn’t recognise him since they had assumed he was dead. Our assumptions quite often constrain and limit our understanding. We often only see and hear what we want to see and hear. But in true Socratic fashion, Jesus draws out of them their fears and uncertainties and their expectations. That is part of the teaching.
Only then does he provide a way to think about what has perplexed and confused them. “He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” He gives us a way to think about the things of the past by drawing them into the reality of things divine. He teaches. It is one way in which we come to know things, namely, through our engagement with the power and truth of ideas. He provides a way of understanding.
That is one way. But in Emmaus he shows us another way. They complement each other. “As he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” The action immediately recalls them to the Last Supper, the night in which he was betrayed, when he did exactly the same thing. As Luke simply says, “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him.” It is a kind of ‘aha moment’, a moment of recognition, an anagnorisis, and one which has an immediate effect on them that leads to a peripeteia, a reversal of situation. We are given to see the immediate effect. “They said to one another, Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” The idea of Christ opening to us an understanding of the Scriptures is a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel. Here we see the effect of the teaching and the action of Christ that recalls them to his presence with them at once on the Eve of the Passion and now on the day of Resurrection. The same reality is present albeit in the different modes of suffering and joy.
What is the change? Education is transformative. The transformative aspect is not a rejection of the past or of the body or of the natural world as if all that is evil. The Resurrection affirms the essential goodness of the world and of the body as belonging to the event of God as essential life. It is not about becoming a different person but about becoming more fully and more truly who you are. The change is from fear to love. As the novelist and theologian Marilynne Robinson notes, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind” because “Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality”. Such is the meaning of God as essential life. The two disciples immediately return to the very place from which they had been fleeing. They are no longer afraid. They return to Jerusalem only to hear from the others about the Risen Christ and then to tell them “how he was known of them in the breaking of the bread.”
These lovely ideas and lovely images are about the different forms of our learning; our learning from things being taught and our learning from things being done. Word and deed; Word and Sacrament. Such things counter both the fears and uncertainties and the over-assertions and certainties of our contemporary world. And, just perhaps, our hearts may burn within us in coming to knowledge. At the very least, the story offers a way to think about what it means to be a self, a person, soul and body, through our engagement and being with one another in community. At the very least, we might come to know ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves. We need not be in flight from ourselves or the world.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy