I just finished my second week of spring classes here at Notre Dame. Before classes started I went on a five day silent retreat—something I had never done before. While there, one of the things I meditated on was a Scripture passage that’s already proven quite meaningful to me: the Emmaus road passage in Luke 24.
It’s an amazing passage. Two disciples encounter Jesus just while walking down the road, and they don’t even recognize Him. One has to wonder how amazing it would have been to hear, for the first time, the true meaning of the Scriptures opened up before you. It was a seven-mile journey, and I’d love to know what material Jesus covered in the limited time they had. We possess pieces of that same teaching in the New Testament, though. Whether Jesus covered it then or not, the epistle to the Romans, to the Hebrews, the whole New Testament agrees with what Jesus laid out then. There is, after all, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
They come to their exit (Exit 7: Emmaus) and Jesus (aka the stranger) is going further on. Why do they invite Him in? Why do they insist? And what would they have lost if they hadn’t?
It may seem kind of simple, but I wrestled with this (in silence) for quite a while. Later on in the passage, they let on that their hearts “burned within them” while He was with them opening up the Scriptures. Many of us know what that feels like, to feel something of God’s presence in our heart as we encounter Him in Scripture. It’s hard to describe—like I suddenly discover an intense thirst only when I drink water, and the thirst lingers with me afterwards. But to them, this guy is theoretically still just a good preacher, right? They got their quality sermon that they can chew on over the next week, why do they need anything else?
I can’t really articulate what it is that I think compelled them at that crossroads beyond repeating what they said—that their hearts were burning, were on fire.
And from a Catholic perspective, that hunger, that longing, was so necessary. They had truly encountered Jesus—not a fake Jesus, but they didn’t know it. At altar calls we quote the Gospel of John and imagine Jesus knocking on our door, but here it seems we have to insist on inviting Jesus in without even knowing who He is! They didn’t recognize Jesus in their own midst. Despite the fact that they could no longer see His face, Jesus was only truly recognized in the breaking of bread. (after Jesus took it, blessed it, and broke it. Gold star for anyone who can guess when the last time Luke tells us Jesus had done that and what he said then)
And what would they have missed? What would I miss if I knew the Scriptures, even if I understood them correctly, but didn’t recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread?
On the one hand, I just don’t know. Maybe they could have gone on and spread the truths they had learned (the gospel?) and done great things for God. Maybe. That’s the never-be-hasty cerebral part of me that says that. The burning heart part of me says that they missed everything. They were so close to Jesus and felt touched in their heart by Him, but just let Him go away?? What is the gospel if not the very presence of Jesus in our lives? What good is it to know about Jesus, but never have him enter our home, our heart, or our body?
I don’t need to know the answer to the questions to know what I want.
The mystery of this passage for me lies in the fact that they made their decision before knowing in their head what exactly it was that they were doing. I would dare to say that Jesus probably hadn’t used the Aramaic equivalent of “transubstantiation” at all at that point. But their hearts recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread even when their eyes did not. It was a mystery. At that point they had no terminology to describe what had happened. Instead, they had a story, and that’s what the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to hand on to us.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but I feel like I’ve been on the road to Emmaus for a long time. The footsteps of my journey towards the Catholic Church are littered with books and google searches, but in true evangelical fashion (meant in the best way possible), my journey is also marked by something internal difficult to describe. As ordinary and predictably sinful as I am, I want to be with Jesus, and I still feel a burning in my heart that calls me to invite Him into my life in a deeper way, and to recognize Him in the breaking of bread.