Our gospel reading today and tomorrow is from Luke’s resurrection narrative.(Luke 24,13-35), the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Matthew, Luke begins with the women at the tomb, but he quickly directs us beyond the tomb to a road where two downcast disciples sunk in disappointment have lost hope. Jesus appears gradually to the two disciples. Slow to see his presence, they finally recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Afterwards, they remember his words on the road that made their hearts burn within them.
In Luke’s account of the Risen Jesus, the two disciples on the road who lose hope are key to understanding the journey of the church the evangelist describes in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The church is on a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. For the evangelist Rome is the ends of the earth.
But it’s not a triumphant journey the two disciples make, nor is the church’s journey triumphant. It falls and fails along the way. Luke’s narrative is a wonderful corrective to a triumphalist view of the church.
It also reminds us our personal journey of faith is not a triumphal march either. We’re like the two disciples. Yet, Jesus walks with us. He never fails to help us see.
At our mission last night I mentioned the inadequacy of some recent books on the bible. One example is Bill O’Reilly’s, Killing Jesus, which many are reading this Lent. Check out this review by Fr. Paul Zilonka, CP, a Passionist scripture scholar who died recently. Paul sees O’Reilly’s book as part of the “Quest for the historical Jesus.” New historical studies can increase our understanding of the times of Jesus, but unfortunately they can cause us to miss the meaning the biblical authors wished to leave us.
In our catechesis last night, I spoke about the way our gospels, beginning with the passion narratives, came about. Here’s what I said:
We hardly can imagine what a shock the crucifixion of Jesus was to his disciples, to Peter and James and John and all the rest who came up with him to Jerusalem from Galilee. Last Sunday’s gospel. remember, was about the news of a tower that fell near the temple in Siloam, killing 18 people. Also, Pilate killed a number of people in the riot. In those days in Jerusalem news traveled fast, especially anything about Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leadership. It was a political city, and everybody’s eyes and ears were turned to what was going on.
Especially a crucifixion. Crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, and the Romans made sure everybody knew about it. They meant crucifixion to be a deterrent, a warning. They deliberately publicized it. The place where Jesus was executed, the Roman place for execution, was right outside the city gates on a main road on a raised ground the shape of a skull. Calvary. People going in and out of the city had to see it. They were meant to see it. The Romans made sure those to be crucified were marched through the streets to their execution. The crown of thorns the soldiers put on Jesus was an added touch: Don’t try to be a king here.
Today, with the help of archeologists and historians we can trace the last hours of Jesus very well, from Bethany in the eastern part of Jerusalem where he stayed when he came up for the Passover feast, to the garden on the Mount of Olives where he prayed and was arrested, to the place where the Jewish leaders questioned him in the upper part of the city, to the judgement place where Pilate condemned him, to the soldiers’ barracks where they scourged him and crowned him with thorns, to Calvary where he was nailed to a cross and crucified, to the tomb where he was buried, “a stone’s throw away.”
Today, if you stand on the walls of the Citadel, the ancient fortress on the highest point of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is close to where Jesus was condemned, you follow the route Jesus took his death and resurrection. You can see the Mount of Olives to the west; you’re standing near where Jesus was judged by Pilate; and looking over to your left you can see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over Calvary and his tomb.
His followers were shocked when he died. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus after his crucifixion describe their lost hope. “We were hoping he would be the one to redeem Israel,” they say to the Stranger who appears at their side. (Luke 24,13-35)
When he asks who they’re talking about, they’re surprised: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” Everybody knew what happened “ to Jesus the Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him.”
They tell him that “some women of our group have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
Then Jesus began to tell them that Moses and the prophets said the Messiah had to suffer to enter into his glory. Finally, he will reveal himself to them “in the breaking of the bread.”
When his followers first speak to the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas about the death and resurrection of Jesus, they use the same Old Testament scriptures. God has revealed this tremendous mystery to us, they say, it was promised in the scriptures. And we also have seen him. We hear that early proclamation in the preaching of Peter and the others in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.
Our four gospels come years later; they’re not accounts taken down that day. The gospel of Luke, for example, was written about 40 or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s an account that has been enriched by years of reflection on that happened when Jesus died and rose again. We shouldn’t miss the wealth of reflection it contains.
Jesus Christ told his apostles to bring the Good News revealed by God in him to all people. They handed on through “their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received–whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the promptings of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Faith 76)
The apostles and others associated with them, “under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.” (Catechism 76)
We acknowledge the apostles’ role in bringing the Good News when we read the gospels and recite the Apostles’ Creed. We remember them in our liturgy, and each month we celebrate one of the apostles in our calendar of feasts. July 3rd, we honor the Apostle Thomas.
Thomas reminds us that the witnesses chosen by Jesus were both weak and strong. Everyone in the Upper Room the night of Jesus’ resurrection believed that he had risen. The absent Thomas doesn’t. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Only when Jesus patiently appears to him a week later and has him touch the wounds in his hands and his side, does he believe. “My Lord and my God.”
Is Thomas unique in his weakness of faith? Were the others chosen by Jesus as foundations of his church unlike him? From the slight information the gospels provide, all the other apostles are both weak and strong–Peter, their leader, is a prime example.
Did the Holy Spirit change the apostles completely at Pentecost? We may think they were, but I don’t think they were so completely transformed as we like to believe. The story in St. Luke’s gospel of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus may better describe the post-resurrection church and its leaders.
Hardly a triumphalist church and hardly perfect leaders. Their strength and their guide was the patient Jesus. The Risen Jesus was with them then and he is with us now.
Great mysteries are expressed and deep truths revealed in these days between Easter and the Ascension, St. Leo the Great says in a sermon:
“In those days the fear of death was removed with all its terrors, and the immortality not only of the soul but also of the flesh was established.”
To remove the fear of death, keep your eyes on the two disciples on the way to Emmaus whom Jesus accompanied “to sweep away all the clouds of our uncertainty.”
“He reproached them for the slowness of their timid and trembling hearts. Their enlightened hearts catch the flame of faith, and lukewarm as they have been, they are made to burn while the Lord unfolds the Scriptures. In the breaking of bread also their eyes are opened as they eat with him. How much more blessed is that opening of their eyes, to the glorification of their nature, than the time when our first parents’ eyes were opened to the disastrous consequences of their transgression.”
Keep your eyes on all the disciples at this time, the saint says: “the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at his death on the cross and backward in believing his Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy.”