The Road to Emmaus

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My reflections on today’s Gospel, the story of the two disciples encountering the Risen Jesus on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13ff, taken from my piece on allegory in Letter & Spirit 8:

The most important passage for biblical allegory, however, is Luke 24:13–35, the story of the two disciples who encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. After Jesus’ passion, two disciples are walking to Emmaus discussing “the things that have happened.” The risen Jesus draws near and walks with them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke employs the divine passive here: God is keeping them from recognizing the risen Jesus, and will reveal him to them at a moment of particular significance. Jesus inquires about the substance of their discussion, and in an instance of intense irony they proceed to relate to the risen Jesus much of what has just happened to Jesus. What they relate lacks coherence; they tell of events—Jesus’ mighty prophetic ministry, his unjust execution, reports of visions of angels and the empty tomb—and their dashed hopes that he might have been “the one to redeem Israel”, but they can make no sense of the data.

But the risen Jesus can and does make sense of it for them, and here Luke’s story teaches both that the Old Testament is the necessary matrix for understanding Jesus while it takes the risen Jesus to bring coherence to the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Here lies the root of the fundamental Christian claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the hermeneutical key to the Scriptures, that he is the lens that brings them into focus.

But Luke is not finished, as if Scriptural interpretation were merely a matter of drawing the proper connections between Old Testament types and New Testament antitypes on an intellectual level. The two disciples compel Jesus to remain with them, for it is “evening.” They sit down for supper, and the risen Jesus—still unknown to them—“took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke’s language is patently eucharistic, recalling the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22:14–23. And it is precisely when the risen Jesus begins to celebrate the Eucharist that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” and he then “vanished out of their sight.” If it takes the risen Jesus to reveal the ultimate coherence if the Scriptures, it then takes the Eucharist to reveal Jesus (something Luke reinforces in Luke 24:35 as the two disciples relate “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread”). Further, his vanishing suggests he has not departed, but that going forward he remains present in the Eucharist. And here, then, we see that Scriptural interpretation goes beyond intellectual construals; Scriptural interpretation comes to full fruition in the liturgy, at the center of which stands the Eucharist; Emmaus implies mystagogy, to which we must later return. […]

Let us return to Emmaus, in which the risen Jesus provides dominical warrant and example for the practice of allegory consummated in mystagogy. But given that we are dealing here with the risen Jesus, who is soon to ascend into heaven, allegory in this strict sense it not merely one salutary practice among many or simply a good idea. Much more than that, Luke’s Christology of the risen and ascended Jesus suggests allegory is inherent in the structure and function of Scripture, and indeed not just Scripture but the entire cosmos, since, as Paul puts it, “in him all things hold together,” the same Risen One who was revealed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We encounter this risen Jesus supremely in the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council taught is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” The Mass is indeed heaven breaking into earth, with architecture, art, music, and ars celebrandi all ideally functioning to point us to the eschatological moment which even now breaks in, as it did on the road to Emmaus. As Scott Hahn writes, “[E]very eucharistic liturgy conforms to the pattern established at Emmaus: the opening of the scriptures followed by the breaking of the bread, the liturgy of the word followed by the liturgy of the eucharist. The Mass, then, is the place par excellence of the scriptures’ faithful reception.”

The linking of Scriptural word and liturgical eucharistic sacrament in the Emmaus story points to a truth largely forgotten. In our individualistic, post-Gutenberg age, in which Bibles are readily available and literacy widespread, most Christians read Scripture as individuals and as members of small groups. For this reason, many are unaware that both historically and theologically the Bible’s natural habitat is the liturgy. Indeed, in the biblical story itself what would become the original Scriptures of Israel—the Ten Commandments and the broader Torah—were given to Moses in the midst of an encounter with the Lord God on Sinai, and the covenant with Israel is sealed with sacrificial liturgy, after which Moses receives many detailed instructions concerning Israel’s sacred sacrificial liturgy going forward. From the outset, the first Scriptures were received in and with liturgy, concerned liturgy, and were handed down in liturgy. Later Christian questions concerning the contents of the canon of the New Testament were also driven by liturgical concerns. The question was, Which documents could be read, chanted, and proclaimed in liturgy, and which were forbidden? For early Christians and Jews before them, then, the Bible was learned and experienced in the context of the liturgy: The Scriptures were read or chanted and preached in synagogues and churches. Most of the young learned the Jewish or Christian faith not by reading scrolls or codices they did not possess, given their great expense, and could not read, given near-universal illiteracy, but from their parents and in liturgy.

But the liturgical habitat of Scripture is not merely a function of ancient social conditions in which scrolls were scarce, codices uncommon, and readers rare. Rather, Scripture’s home in the liturgy is a function of theology. In fact, it is more than that, more than an intellectual datum; it is a function of Catholic culture (which in fact the Catholic liturgical cultus cultivates). As the Pontifical Biblical Commission put it:

From the earliest days of the Church, the reading of Scripture has been an integral part of the Christian liturgy, and inheritance to some extent from the liturgy of the synagogue. Today, too, it is above all through the liturgy that Christians come into contact with Scripture, particularly during the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. In principle, the liturgy, and especially the sacramental liturgy, the high point of which is the Eucharistic celebration, brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts, for the liturgy places the proclamation in the midst of the community of believers, gathered around Christ so as to draw near to God. Christ is then “present in his word, because it is he himself who speaks when sacred Scripture is read in the Church (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). Written text thus becomes living word.

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