The Walk to Emmaus
By Fritz von Uhbe
(Born in 1848, Wolkenburg, Saxony – Germany -, Died 1911, Munich)
New Masters Gallery Germany
“Naturalist close to the Impressionists, Fritz von Uhde strove to represent the presence of Jesus to the world by painting him as part of contemporary scenes. Here, however, he illustrates the Gospel episode of the “pilgrims of Emmaus”. The road winding through the sinuous valleys symbolizes the unfolding of salvation history throughout the march of humanity toward its eternal completion.
The place in which the pilgrims find themselves mark the time of the historic manifestation of Salvation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Word reveals to these two fellow travellers the ultimate meaning of sacred history represented by the road already travelled: “starting with Moses and going through the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself” (v. 27).
The road that lies before them, with all its meanderings and pitfalls, stretching out to the heavenly horizon – that road represents the time still accorded until time without end. This is the time of the Church -”.
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”.
According to the Gospel written by Luke, in the morning after the resurrection, the women returned to the place where the apostles were gathered together and they told them about the empty tomb and how they saw “two men” (not angels) dressed in dazzling clothes. Peter then ran to the tomb, and he saw just the linen clothes.
Luke describes two feelings in these events:
1. the perplexity and terror of the women, and
2. the amazement of Peter.
At this point, Luke does not mention anything about the faith of the disciples because, allegedly, none of them had yet met the Lord. Really, had they not? We will come to this later on.
The text is organized along two moments that scholars describe as a eucharistic liturgy:
In verse 15: the sentence “While they were talking…” introduces the liturgy of the Word, with the listening of the words of Jesus;
In verse 30: the sentence “When he was at table…” introduces the liturgy of the Eucharist, as Jesus prepares to break the bread.
The Theology of the Road
We know that in the Gospel of Luke Jesus exercises his ministry as if He were making a pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem; the same writer, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, describes the life of the early Christian Community as a journey from Jerusalem, to Rome and to the ends of the earth (Finis-Terra).
It is not surprising then, that St. Luke narrates the first personal encounter of the disciples with the Risen Christ along the road, in this case from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus.
As we read before, contemplating the painting by Fritz von Uhbe, the road is an icon that represents the history of Salvation contained in the Holy Scriptures.
History is where God meets us; history is where God saves humanity. But in order to understand this history, we need the help of Jesus Himself and we need to interpret it from the end: the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is the reason and the fulfilment of human history and of our personal history, too.
We see the two disciples, who were with the Eleven after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are walking away from the community. They were disillusioned, their hopes broken to pieces.
They left Jerusalem on that Sunday afternoon. Only Cleopas is named.
Luke says that in early the morning, the women went from the tomb and told their story “to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9). But these two prefer to run away rather than paying any attention to “women’s stories”.
Was all the pain of their frustration what prevented them from recognizing Jesus?
The two disciples were engaged in a conversation about the events of the passion and death of Jesus. Jesus then “came near and went with them”.
We should pay attention to these two verbs: it is noteworthy the non-pretentious, simple and humble presence of Jesus: he does not disturb, break or change the conversation, he simply joins in, like “the silent listener in our conversations and the unseen guest at every meal”.
St. Luke wants the listener to understand that it is Jesus who comes close to them, but the two disciples do not know who He is. It is important for the listener to recognize how Jesus behaves, how He walks with them and eventually how He asks them questions.
Jesus makes a direct question: “What things?” This seems an innocent, modest and genuine question that opens up the heart of the speaker.
Spiritual directors define this as an invitation for self-disclosure: one needs to discover and bring out of one’s own self the hurt and the story that one has to tell, if one wants to be helped, to be healed, to find inner peace.
Jesus was wounded in the Cross, but He has become the Healer of all human illness.
The Grieving Disciples
The sadness of the two disciples makes us think of how they mourn the loss of a loved friend.
They could not believe that there was any person feeling so aloof about the impact that the death of Jesus caused in Jerusalem during the Paschal Feast. For them, the whole world stopped; however, they cannot understand how this person seemed to ignore it all!
This is close to the feeling of anyone who after a great loss sees that everybody else moves on happily with his/her own life as if nothing has happened.
The disciples of Emmaus had their own way of mourning: they run away from Jerusalem and go back to their old way of life. They try to forget as soon as possible the vain hopes they had about the liberation of Israel. Their state is of denial. And Jesus finds them in that condition.
The Risen Body of Christ
There is something mysterious about the appearances of the Risen Christ. His body is the same, He carries the wounds of his passion, because the Crucified Lord is the Risen Lord; however, all those who met him after the Resurrection were in need some sign in order to recognize Him: Mary Magdalen, Peter in the lake of Galilee, Thomas,...
Without this personal encounter with Christ, the empty tomb according to Luke, does not support the Christian faith.
The disciples had no belief in the resurrection after seeing the tomb.
Peter runs in the morning, he sees it and returns “home, amazed at what had happened”. Peter seems not to have seen Jesus. At least, if Peter had seen Him, Cleopas and his friend did not want to believe what Peter said.
Indeed, as they went back to Jerusalem, the disciples, gathered in the room said to them: “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
Scriptures from the Point of View of the Resurrection
This passage is one of the earliest justifications for a Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures.
The two disciples retold what they knew about Jesus. They shared their high expectations about him the day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey and crying with the crowd: “Hosanna”.
Jesus, takes them a step back. He explains to them the Scriptures, so that their ears and eyes may be opened.
Jesus leads them to recognize in the crucifixion, the fulfilment of the Old Testament Prophecies and in the Resurrection the beginning of the new life.
That is how Christians can give reason for a Christological interpretation to Scriptures. That is how the Scriptures become for us the living and active Word of God.
The Breaking of the Bread
The travellers arrived at their destination late in the evening. The seven miles from Jerusalem seemed to have taken longer than expected. Hospitality is a great asset in the Oriental world. They cannot let this new friend go away at night.
The sentence “He went in and stayed with them” is a summary of the action of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. Jesus does not resist their invitation… He who did not refused a sincere invitation for a meal during his life time, will not refuse this one, after his resurrection.
But, what happens next is also surprising: from being a guest, Jesus has becomes the host: He takes bread and breaks it, He takes wine and shares it. The first Eucharist is taking place. Cleopas and his companion can only explain what happened by saying that their eyes were opened and they recognized who this mysterious pleasant new friend really was.
However, He vanished from their sight and they remained in front of the Mystery of the broken Bread and shared cup of Wine: the Eucharist, the real presence of the Lord during the earthly pilgrimage of the Church.
This account is an early testimony of what Jesus meant when at the last Supper He said: “do this in memory of me!”
This is the sign the disciples needed to change their understanding: in v.16 we read that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”, while in v. 31 we are told that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”.
The Eucharist is all we need to recognize that Jesus is the Son of God and is among us, as He said: “Remember, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the time.’”.
The disciples of Emmaus have now been empowered to be Apostles, witnesses to the Risen Christ for his brothers and sisters gathered in the community. Now, it makes sense to stay together with them. Now, it becomes clear that what the women said was that naked truth they had refused to believe. Now, the words of Peter were not just about an empty tomb, but about Peter’s encounter with the life-giving Risen Lord.
Today our hands are raised in praise to You, Lord, for your great understanding of our human nature.
You who came to walk our ways, You understand our waywardness.
You who suffered the loss of your life, You understand our losses.
We cannot thank you enough for the gift of faith you have bestowed on your disciples, on us!
We praise and adore you, because you are not scandalized by our small and not so small failures.