One of my favorite pictures—I have a copy of it pasted into my book for the Liturgy of the Hours—shows a scene of three robed figures walking along a dirt road, shafts of sun breaking through trees and clouds.
The man in the middle, hand upraised as he talks, seems to fascinate the others. Ahead in the hazy distance is a town, perhaps Emmaus.
Although there are many other artistic renditions of the scene, this one appeals to me the most. The perspective allows the viewer to observe the travelers from behind.
They are walking away from Jerusalem; and since they have yet to “recognize” him in the breaking of bread, they do not realize the Lord is with them.
It’s a lovely Easter story that the Gospel of Luke gives us. Here we have two people who seem to think everything is over. They have just experienced a great loss.
“We had hoped,” they say, “he was the one to set Israel free.”
Not only have they left the community, they don’t place much credence in the testimony of the women who heard angels declaring Jesus alive. Other witnesses saw the empty tomb, but they did not see Jesus. Perhaps that is why they are walking away.
Observe what is going on here. We have two people who seem to be in a situation of unbelief, hitting the road, leaving their community, deep in confusion.
Two things happen. One, they are joined by Jesus on the road. He actually walks with them within their loss of hope and within their bewilderment. Two, he asks them to tell their story, and he stays to have dinner with them.
Even when he chides them for their weak faith and goes through the scriptural promises of the messiah, they are not in a state of full belief. They have yet to recognize him. Only with the breaking of the bread are their eyes opened; and at that moment of recognition, he vanishes from sight.
Imagine this incident as a metaphor of how God deals with someone who has gone away or lost the way, an image of how we could deal with each other in our unbelief.
With the breaking of the bread, the two wayfarers are brought into communion, even though they have not fully acknowledged the mystery that beckons them.
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus presents a strange state of affairs indeed.
Jesus was more with them on their journey, even in their doubt and unbelief, than when they actually saw and recognized him and finally believed.
And it was only in retrospect that they could see that their hearts were enkindled as they were walking and talking on the road—even though they did not know that it was he who was explaining the scriptures to them.
I find this paradox of faith, of distance and closeness, of belief and unbelief, repeated over and over again in people’s lives. Although I cannot see when or if it happens to me, it is startlingly clear when I witness it in others.
A man tells me he feels distant from God. He is unhappy about the sense of separation.
He regrets his carelessness with the gifts that have been given him, the loves entrusted to him. He wishes he were more attentive, more “close” to God, more appreciative and prayerful.
Finally, and strangely, there are times when he wonders whether he trusts in God at all. In those times he feels at sea, at a loss.
A young, vibrant woman wonders if she has lost her faith. She doesn’t feel its magic anymore. She only wishes she could have back those moments when it all felt so wonderful. Now it just seems empty without God.
I ask her: “Well, do you believe in God the creator and father of Jesus Christ your savior?” “Oh yes.” “Do you believe that Jesus died for you and is risen with a promise for you of eternal life?” “Of course; but I don’t feel it. I miss having a relationship with God.”
Now look at these people and imagine you are God. One is sad only because he misses you, because he takes you for granted; and his worst times are when he thinks you might not exist. He finds the thought of your nonexistence almost unbearable.
The young woman says that life feels empty without you. She only wishes she could feel your presence more, that she could see and talk with you again. Her greatest worry is that she might have lost her faith in you.
Now, do you, God, think you have a relationship with them? Do you think they have a relationship with you? Do you think they love you? Do you think they hope and trust in you? Is not their whole life, their whole being, a prayer?
“We had hoped,” they said on the road to Emmaus. But even their sense of loss, their longing to hope, was hope. Even their desire to believe was believing. Even their longing to love was love.
And so, present with him at the table, they finally recognized the gift of the mutual presence that was there all along, walking, talking, wondering why, telling their woe, hearing his story once again.
Finally recognizing him, they set their faces toward Jerusalem to tell the others how their hearts were set on fire, not only in the breaking of the bread, but in the revelation to them of their past and future glory.