Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Road to Emmaus: Conventional Wisdom Reproved

This is a re-post from April of 2011. Sunday's Gospel readings on May 8th recounts The Road to Emmaus story.

Human beings have a strong tendency towards social conformity, that is, they are inclined to do what others are doing. This tendency is even stronger than our instinct to help others in need. An overwhelming temptation is to associate truth with what the greater number of people believe.

After centuries of oppression by empires and foreign nations, political liberation (i.e. getting rid of this oppression) became increasingly important for the Jewish people. With that, the common hope for a political Messiah emerged; one who had the political and military power to ward off Israel's enemies. It just so happen that this hope colored the interpretation of Scripture by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes. As more and more Jewish leaders bought into this politicized version of the Messiah, it naturally followed that the average Jew of the first century believed as they did. Therefore, during our Lord's public ministry, even with miraculous signs and wonders being performed, the Jewish people had a hard time accepting Jesus Christ as their Messiah.

Nevertheless, the preaching of the Gospel was to usher in, not an earthly kingdom as was expected, but a spiritual kingdom. This spiritual kingdom- a new people of God -was the real source of liberation. Sin and Satan had to be taken down and done away with before Caesar could be dealt with. As Christ himself said, “How can anyone enter a strong man's house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.” Christ would first have to tie up Satan and cast him out. After all, it was Satan who was the "ruler of the world," the one who patrolled the earth according to the prophet Job. Indeed, it was he who proved to be more of a nemesis to mankind than Caesar himself.

Enter Cleopas and "the other disciple." Cleopas was one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who decided to call it quits and head home. Unfortunately for him, he was no exception to the conventional wisdom of his day. Feeling let down, he had come to the conclusion that the crucifixion of Christ marked the end of a good thing. The biblical idea that the Messiah would be the sacrificial Lamb of God "who takes away the sins of the world" could not be further away from Cleopas’ mind. Good Friday for Cleopas was the end, not the beginning of the work of Christ. Nevertheless, what he considered to be a failure on Calvary, God would use to save and bless mankind.

This pattern of the unexpected repeats itself over and over in God’s plan for his people. This is why we can never be sure that setbacks and detours are failures in the eyes of God. In fact, it could be just what Divine Providence required for his purpose.

I digress here, but ccording to St. Jerome, Cleopas was the brother of St. Joseph and one of the seventy disciples; the other disciple was thought be a man by the name of Simeon. Tradition has it that Cleopas was martyred for his Christian faith in a castle located in Emmaus, which was his hometown. What was originally a scandal to him, namely, the crucifixion of his Nephew, foretold the manner in which he would die. Indeed, it was in Emmaus where his death would glorify God.

Back to the road to Emmaus: When the two disciples embarked upon the seven mile walk to Emmaus, they were also walking away from something. With a downtrodden spirit, they were walking away from Jerusalem, away from where Christ had risen from the dead and away from the place where the Apostles had begun to fellowship with their Risen Lord. To be sure, they were about to walk away from the most important events that were yet to unfold.

Cleopas and Simeon (if we accept St. Jerome's account) were conversing about their dashed hopes when Jesus entered the picture. Notice that Jesus, who was originally taken as a mysterious foreigner, did not initiate a new discussion with these gentlemen. That is, he did not ask them to talk about what they were not already talking about. Instead, he joined the conversation and took it to another level. From their discouraged stupor, Jesus transformed their misunderstanding of the Messiah into one which accorded with God's intent. Making reference to Scripture, he enlightened their minds and inflamed their hearts as to who and what the Messiah actually was. With that, the two disciples were filled with hope and new strength.

But first it is important to note that this approach- joining the conversation and taking it to a more enlightened level -serves as a good model for the New Evangelization. Catholic evangelists, both clergy and laity, need not take people off of their own turf. We too can enter into their conversations, interests and concerns. From there we can use the Light of Gospel to interpret and give meaning to their daily affairs; demonstrating that whatever good they possess or desire can be perfected and given its rightful context. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, grace perfects nature; it does not replace it.

It seems to me that the Holy Spirit anticipated this need, that is, the need to join other people’s conversation when he spoke through the Second Vatican Council. With regard to effectively communicating God’s Word to the world, the Council taught the following: “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics…” (Art.4 Guadium et Spes)

I think we as Catholics make a mistake when we expect unbelievers to join our conversation without making any effort to join theirs; or when we answer- not the questions people are asking –but our own questions. It seems to me that through the Emmaus story and the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Spirit is biding the twenty-first century Catholic to enter into the talks around the kitchen table, enter into the discussion about the issues in the community and even to enter into our national debates. But if this is to bear fruit we cannot leave the discussion where we find it. We have to be “fools for Christ” and speak of him crucified, as St. Paul would say. We cannot be afraid to introduce the reality of the supernatural or speak of Christ’s laws which do not find favor with society. Like Christ did with the disciples walking to Emmaus, Catholics are called to put the daily affairs of life and current events in a biblical context. It is only in Christ that we can see the world as it really is.

Second Post:

When Jesus joined the conversation of the two disciples, he took it to a whole new level. But he first rebuked their willingness to go along with the conventional wisdom that the Messiah should be an earthly king like Caesar, Pharaoh, or Herod. The Old Testament, read in its proper context, suggests that his dominion would be both spiritual and universal. His work would go well beyond restoring Israel as a nation. Not through political or military means would Jesus Christ establish God’s reign but through the infusion of his Spirit in souls. It is there he wished to establish the Kingdom of God. As such, everything else would fall into place; including the restoration of Israel.

The chosen instruments through which God would bring this about was predicted by the prophets. However, they were not what the average person expected. Even today they continue to be a stumbling block for most. Displayed on the Cross for everyone to see were love, sacrifice and humiliation. By explaining the true mission of the Messiah and the shame it would involve, Jesus inspired a new hope in these two disciples. Indeed, he provided an alternative interpretation of Scripture and a better understanding of his death on Good Friday. In all probability, as he recounted the Old Testament prophecies, he made reference to the passage from prophet Isaiah: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” Or he may have cited the passage from the book of Zechariah which reads: “…they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a first-born.” Or even Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

As Jesus was talking to Cleopas, his uncle (cf. previous blog), and the other disciple, their hearts were burning with zeal. Not only was their understanding of the Messiah corrected but their human knowledge of love and sacrifice was given a whole new meaning. Nevertheless, the words of our Lord were not enough. It wasn’t until they reached Emmaus where Jesus “broke bread” that the identity of this Mysterious Stranger was revealed. In the New Testament and in the writings of the early Church Fathers “breaking bread” was a reference to the celebration and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It wasn’t until they arrived in Emmaus that it all came together for them. Through the Eucharistic sacrifice, the scandal of Cross and the incredible reports about the empty tomb was made clear. Through the breaking of the bread his sacrifice on the Cross and his resurrection were brought into their midst and made present to them. Noteworthy is the fact that both God’s Word and the Eucharist were necessary to bring this about. For them and for us the Word and the Eucharist reveal who God is and what his will is for each individual.

Yet as powerful as this event was, it was not complete. After all, Jesus disappeared from their midst. Indeed, he did not stay with them indefinitely for a reason. Cleopas and the other disciple were immediately inspired to return to Jerusalem; the place they originally retreated from in a downtrodden spirit. The Spirit of God inspired them to rejoin the Apostles, that is, the Church, so that their knowledge and communion with the Lord would be complete. It is in the totality of believers who make up the Body of Christ, the Church, where the totality of God’s gifts can be found. As St. Irenaeus said in the second century, ““Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace."

It is there where conventional wisdom loses its hold on us and where we discover what is really important in life. It is there where the gifts and wisdom of Christians compliment ours. It is there from the lectern where God's Word sheds its light and it is on the altar where love and sacrifice are renewed on a daily basis so that we have food for the journey.

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