The presence of the Presence
Let me begin by confessing that this story from Luke of the walk to Emmaus is one of my very favorites in all of scripture. For this reason my husband Jarrett and I chose it for the gospel reading at our wedding some years ago. It tells of the presence of Christ – the accompaniment of Christ – where we least expect him, when we don’t even know that he is there, perhaps when we are elated or when we are most devastated, and when we are simply running through the drill of our days and getting things done. Jarrett and I were hoping for that blessed reminder no matter what would become or befall us. We wanted to remember that we are always in the presence of the Presence.
So there they are in the drill of their day, two people walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But it was not just any day. We know that one was Cleopas. Some scholars have suggested that the second traveler was his wife, particularly since that person is not given a name. Some also suggest that Emmaus at this time was not a proper town but rather a Roman army base. Perhaps, then, this was a local Jewish couple working as staff at the base – slinging hash in the kitchens, maintaining the grounds and buildings – the things that locals do at military bases around the world today. They are followers of Jesus – maybe they’d asked to have that Passover weekend off to be with the crowds in Jerusalem.
Someone also leaving Jerusalem catches up to them and they walk together for a while. The death of Jesus had turned the city on its head for Jews, Romans, everybody. There had been mass gatherings in streets and squares, the involvement of the highest regional officials, even rallies outside their headquarters. Everyone had flooded into town for Passover, all culminating in the massive spectacle of Jesus’ public torture, procession to Golgotha with his cross on his back, his execution, and the hours that it took him so painfully and publicly to die. Had this couple of the road to Emmaus gotten glimpses of it all? Had the earthquake when Christ died shaken the ground under their very feet? This guy walking out of town with them seems to know nothing about it. Imagine walking out of Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge on September 12, 2001, and chatting for a spell with a stranger who had no clue what had happened the day before, who, if he’d been in New York the day before, apparently hadn’t seen or heard a thing. Hadn’t he at least seen a newspaper headline or heard a little news on the radio? Smoke was still rising from the site. The air smelled of burned cinder and flesh and jet fuel and office paper. This person’s fellow walkers might ask, as did Cleopas and his companion, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s happened in the last few days?” How could somebody miss a cataclysm? It’s like 12/26 to people around the Indian Ocean. Imagine someone walking away from Banda Aceh or Phuket on 12/27 apparently clueless about the tsunami that had struck the day before. Imagine 40 years ago today, someone strolling around Memphis unaware that Dr. King had been assassinated there 2 days before. Cleopas and his companion were stunned. “Are you the only one who does not know?”, they ask as politely as they can.
And so they tried to fill the stranger in on all that had transpired. They unknowingly told Jesus all that he had taught to them, and all about his miracles and healings, and the details about his death and their hopes that he had been the Messiah. I think that Jesus let them continue because they were so heartbroken, and he saw how it helped them to rehearse out loud all the promises of their faith. But they concluded with such sadness. They said, “We had hoped he was the one.” They had hoped with every fiber of their being that Jesus would be the one who ended their long night of servitude to powers and principalities, their occupation by Rome, the persistence of cruelty and evil, the power of sin, the reign of injustice. Oh well. Jesus had been executed by the state among common criminals. All that was left for them was to walk back to the base, and earn a living as best they could, doing the menial labor that supported Rome’s occupation but that meant they could eat. They’d gone to Jerusalem on their weekend off hoping that the Kingdom of God would come flooding in. The Messiah would vanquish Pilate, the military base would be crushed, all Israel would be restored, and the Kingdom of God would triumph forever, bringing peace with justice for all. Now they were walking back to the base, and the Kingdom of God couldn’t be more dead.
We’ve been in their place, many of us – not because we’ve missed the literal Messiah in our midst but because we have seen big, big hopes and loves crash and burn, and we’ve walked away thinking that God could do – would do – no more. Perhaps someone you love very much has died. Perhaps it is your professional or academic hopes that have crashed and burned. Perhaps it is your marriage or partnership, your plans for your kids, your hope to be loved by a special person. Perhaps it is your hope for healing, or for a miracle of a particular sort, or a sign from God that would erase all doubts of faith, or all concerns for the future. When such hopes, expectations, and fervent prayers seem dashed we, too, can walk away from them, as did Cleopas and his companion, down the dusty road that leads back to the numbing routines that keep us fed but not enlivened, by which we live but do not thrive. We can resolve never to hope like that again, as the travelers may have done. We will only be “practical” from now on. But then, we too might miss the presence of the Presence in our midst!
They are feeling about as low as a human being can, these two travelers. They still have no clue who Jesus is, but they invite him to stay in their quarters. It was dark, and there weren’t exactly motels along the road. They didn’t want this stranger to come to any harm. They are shattered in spirit, but they remain generous and kind. They remain people of open hearts.
They recognize him in the breaking of the bread. They weren’t among his closest associates, his disciples (who were still in hiding at this point) so they hadn’t seen him break the bread at the last supper. But when they shared their own bread with him that evening, they got it. Christ appears in the sharing, in the most elemental, small thing of all: in sharing what little they had for supper in their barracks with someone else, a stranger even.
Now they recognized Christ in their midst, and now they also recognized the Kingdom of God in their midst. They’d been longing for something very different; they’d gone to Jerusalem for Passover expecting it to come: trumpets and clouds descending, Jesus on a throne, angels, the sudden destruction of all that represented their oppression, like those military barracks at Emmaus. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. When they at last recognized their Lord, they also recognized what his Lordship would be like. It was rooted in the resurrection. All manner of death, in this world and the next, is overcome. Heaven has been opened. Christ sits on no throne in this world (that was part of the devil’s bargain in the wilderness, as you may remember). The people who’ve been unfair to us aren’t punished; the world looks very much the same the afternoon of Easter as it did the day before. But everything is different, and now Cleopas and his companion understand. The Kingdom of God looks nothing like what they’d expected and they are part of it.
They understood this at last because they had open and sharing hearts, and because they knew that the ability of their in-breaking realm of God to set all people free was partly up to them. They got up from their table. They left that broken loaf right there. They walked through the dark and the dangers of the road back to Jerusalem so they could begin to testify to the other disciples and to all people that the reign of God exists among us right now. No, our world didn’t get better overnight, like we or they thought it would. No, there’s still oppression and injustice, but they’ve already been defeated, and we are a part of bringing that truth to all people.
On this 40th anniversary weekend of the death of Dr. King, I wonder if people then, also, walked around in shattered amazement after getting the news. What now? Was the movement for social justice over? Were all our hopes useless? Is this what happens to those who speak the truth? Has nothing really changed – the man is dead and the world remains as corrupt and unjust as it was before? King was not the Messiah, of course, but he was a great modern prophet and upon his reformist work many had laid their hopes for a new future.
The need to testify on behalf of civil rights is certainly not over. The need to testify to the risen Christ will never end. The realm of God is now; the realm of God is to be fulfilled in times to come. Christ lives; and so we are always in the presence of the Presence. As we walk whatever road is before us, no matter what its disappointments or sadness or joy, we are always in the presence of the Presence. In the Emmaus barracks, on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Banda Aceh, in Memphis, TN, in Princeton, NJ, and wherever our path will take us, we are accompanied the One who loves us so much as to die for us, the power of whose love was stronger than the grave. God’s reign as we have it now does not erase the challenges of our lives. It means that in all things, at every moment, and as we walk any road, we are in the presence of the Presence, and thanks be to God.
Joseph Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990) p. 37.