Walking Together on the Road to Emmaus
The morning after… Most of our lives are passed with relatively few surprises or major transitions happening on any given day. Each day follows the one before it in a predictable way and we don’t spend a lot of time going over it in our minds or talking about it with family and friends. But once in a while, something major happens. There is a transition and nothing is the same. It is the morning after and everything is different.
In Anthropology, we speak of these times as liminal times, from the Latin word for threshold. The term comes from the experience we commonly have of passing through a doorway, over a threshold between two different places. On one side of the door, for example, we experience the warmth of the kitchen and home. On the other side, we are in the stormy weather of winter. Passing through the door is a liminal experience of a very ordinary sort.
Rites of passage, in which an individual moves from one social status (child) to another (adult) for example, were some of the first transitions identified and studied as liminal experiences. They may take place over a period of days. Once the ritual begins, the persons who are transitioning are neither who they were originally, nor who they will be at the end. They are inside the threshold.
Many kinds of transitions today are recognized as liminal, including times of political and social transitions. The days and weeks following the birth of a child or the death of a family member or friend are examples of liminal times. Nothing is quite the same as it was before. Everything gets experienced in a new way and everyday ordinary things no longer feel quite the same.
The time between Jesus’ death and Pentecost were in many ways a time of liminality for his friends as well. Their friend/teacher/master had been executed. They had hoped he was the one who would bring freedom from domination by a foreign power and new hope for the nation. But he had been executed and buried. Now some women were saying he was alive again! How foolish could a person be! They must be hysterical. But still, a few of the men had gone to the tomb to check out the women’s story and they didn’t find his body there either. They didn’t see him, though a woman said she had seen him in the garden. What were they to believe? It couldn’t possibly be true. Best just go home and face the music from family and friends who had said all along that they were fools to go tramping around the country following a “prophet.”
As they walked along, talking about all of this, a stranger joined them. He asked what they were discussing. When they told him, the stranger began to explain the events from the perspective of their own religious history and traditions. So many things began to make sense.
It was getting late and time to stop for the night. The stranger agreed to stop too and they ordered dinner. When the food arrived, the stranger offered the blessing, but in a way that opened their eyes. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, just as Jesus had done at the Last Supper. In that instant they knew who he was and he vanished from their sight. They recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
They didn’t waste any time. They got up and returned to Jerusalem to tell the others. Upon their arrival, they were greeted with “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon.” (Lk 24:13-35)
Fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit blew into town, igniting a whole new time in their lives and the world. No longer frightened and hiding away from the authorities, they went out into the world and spoke boldly of what they had seen of God’s actions through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They proclaimed their belief that God had raised Jesus to life again and poured the Holy Spirit forth into his followers and the world. It was a new day, a new world, a new reality for all. (Acts 2:14,22-33)
Did the period of liminality end then? In one respect, yes. The initial phase of it did anyway. The disciples headed out into the world, telling everyone what they had seen and learned of God’s love for humanity. There were many controversies along the way. Much to learn and sort out about living this new way as a community of faith.
We have letters from some of the original leaders and teachers that give us a peek at what was going on in those early days. Some were written by the individuals whose name is on the letter. Others were written by people who learned from the one to whom the letter is attributed. The letters continually remind the community of the great love of God in sending Jesus, like a spotless lamb, to restore the relationship between humanity and the creator.
For a pastoral people whose history included centuries of offering lambs in sacrifice to God and whose very survival and exodus from Egypt involved the sacrifice of a lamb and the placing of its blood on the door frame, the image of Jesus as a lamb offered in sacrifice to restore the relationship with God made perfect sense. We see it again and again in the letters. Peter reminds us all that we are to behave with reverence while we live, remembering that we have been saved from the old behavioral traps and set free to love because of the sacrifice of “the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” (1 Pet 1:17-21)
Nevertheless, the time of liminality is not yet over and done. The final days have not yet arrived. The community of followers of Jesus continues to share the good news with those among whom they live. Controversies continue to arise. We need to be reminded to speak the truth we hear boldly, and to listen equally deeply to others as they speak of what they have known and experienced. We live and learn. We share our hopes and dreams. We listen to the hopes and dreams of our sisters and brothers around the world. We ask the Holy Spirit to move among us today and in the days to come as well, that we too be energized and empowered to speak of God’s great love to all those we meet and to share it in concrete ways of service.
As we move through our days, we find ourselves meeting the Lord in unexpected times and places. He is present in the stranger who is kind to us when we are in a new town, or the friend who calls with a word of encouragement when times are hard, or the child who smiles at us while we wait in line at the grocery store. He is also in the un-housed person begging for spare change whom we pass on the street or the clerk at the local store who works the late shift and hopes the children at home are all right. We all walk on the road to Emmaus each day. When and where will we meet the Lord? When and how will we share the Lord’s love with our sisters and brothers?
“Were our hearts not burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” May these be our words too, as we watch for and listen to the Lord whom we meet in our daily travels along the way of life.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter