“What has the Christian to say today about change?” But not just change, what about death, what about loss in all its other forms as well? Loss of innocence, loss of love or marriage, loss of job, loss of direction, meaning, loss of me there are a whole host of questions, doubts and fears that people come with.
That is the background to the conversation that Cleopas and his friend are having as they walk along the road to Emmaus in this evening’s second lesson, bereavement, loss and probably anger and frustration.
The two disciples walk with faces downcast and wonder to themselves what all the events of the past week might mean, how are they going to carry on, where are their hopes and aspirations for the future going to lead them now; was it all a big hoax, a cruel confidence trick? The plans they had made, the brilliant ideas for spreading the message that they had envisaged, all these seem dashed to pieces and pointless after the events of Good Friday; Christ’s closest followers had fled, his most vocal supporter, St Peter, was, as the Bishop of London might tell us, truly curvatus in se, turned in on himself. All seemed lost and hopeless. And here we have Cleopas and his friend travelling away from Jerusalem, heading for Emmaus, possibly their home.
Unfortunately the English translation that we have used this evening misses some of the intensity of the situation. It’s wonderfully dramatic in the Greek and hurtles along at a breathtaking rate in some points and then stops abruptly in its tracks in other places to linger over details and slows us right down to a snails pace. Some biblical critics say, oh that’s just bad Greek and not very accomplished grammar that does that; we shouldn’t pay too much attention to primitive mistakes, to crude chunks of composition: St Luke and later editors weren’t that sophisticated after all, they were just doing the best they could with the unrefined tools they possessed.
I think they’ve got it wrong, I think St Luke is more than capable of tipping us off our balance when he wants to, emphasizing a seemingly trivial detail and using an unusual turn of phrase to catch our attention.
Christopher Evans in his monumental work on St Luke’s Gospel puts it rather politely: “As significant as the undoubted charm of the story is, its passion, which is conveyed by a certain vehemence in the language, is not always brought out in translation.” Well you can bally-well say that again!
The word used for “standing still and looking sad-faced” is exquisitely onomatopoeic “skuthropoi” in Greek. In Bangor Cathedral, where I used to be an acolyte, there is a delightful altar piece in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel depicting the two disciples trying to persuade Christ to join them for a meal after a presumably polite conversation; it’s a very lovely 1920’s painting with soft focus lights and warmth, but it slightly misses the passion of the story, the two disciples look as if they’re inviting Our Lord to afternoon tea at the Athenaeum, the California Club, or some other, Gentleman’s Club and are more intent on deciding whether they should order Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey or cream scones for their guest.
But what the Greek says in St Luke 24 is that there is an altercation, the characters don’t actually come to blows, but they DO engage in verbal fisticuffs: Christ, somewhat ironically asks them why they are looking so glum, so skuthropoi, and they round on him, “are you the only one in these parts who doesn’t know what’s been happening?” or, and I’m not exaggerating the Greek here, they say to Our Blessed Lord “you must be the stupidest person in Jerusalem if you haven’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.”
What the text is saying literally is that they “throw verbal weapons at each other.” Not only are they sullen, depressed, bereaved and frustrated, but they are angry and impatient and they get even more so when they are asked why they are so skuthropoi, and so they vent their spleen with the stranger and his apparent lack of sensitivity to their predicament. The irony is exquisite; they don’t realize that this stranger and the things they are intent on lecturing him about is the same person that they claim to know.
There are parallels and echoes here with the raising of Lazarus in the Fourth Gospel. Christ tries to say to Mary, “listen to me, your brother Lazarus WILL rise again…” and she loses her temper and rounds on him, “I know that he will rise again at the Last Day, you don’t need to lecture me on the afterlife; but if you had been here in the first place he would not have died, so don’t try palming me off with your easy words of comfort.”
But to get back to the Emmaus Road, the irony of it! This person that they lose their tempers with, this is the very Lord that they are talking about and they fail to recognize him. They engage him in annoyed conversation that verges on the violent and they still fail to see.
It’s not just here in this 24th chapter; it is one of the strangest features of the Resurrection appearances in the Gospels; that the people who meet Christ continually fail to recognize him. Mary Magdalene in the garden fails to grasp that the gardener is none other than the very man for whom she is desperately searching. The Apostles, when Christ comes to them at the end of St John’s Gospel are in their boats fishing again, almost as if they had never left their nets in the first place to follow him as disciples. And the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, despite their accusation that this stranger is ignorant, it is they who are the truly blind and ignorant ones.
So the conversation is heightened even further, Christ sharply rebukes Cleopas for his failure not only to grasp the foreordained character of the Messiah’s sufferings, but also crucially to make the connection between suffering and “glory,” between the cross and creative freedom and power. Christ condemns the inadequacy of their earlier understanding: he is not what they have thought him to be, and thus they must “learn” him afresh, as from the beginning. Christ makes a volatile situation even more intense, he starts with Moses and goes through all the Old Testament, this is the crux of the account; and it’s not without some humour, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe what all the prophets have spoken!” Christ points out the failure of human intelligence to grasp the true meaning of what has happened; for all their intellectual acquaintance with the “facts” and their capacity to argue till they are blue in the face, they have failed to draw the conclusion of faith, that he is alive. But Christ passes from negative rebuke to positive assertion of the truth, “was in not necessary that the Christ should suffer and enter into glory?” and he carefully avoids using the first person singular, he refers to himself only obliquely. The moment of revelation is still to come when they sit down and eat with him. It’s in the breaking of bread, that this stranger becomes, quite literally, their companion. Then their eyes are opened to him, then they see him for who he is, it all falls into place and makes sense. And he vanishes from their grasp.
There is a danger with us that we may think that we have the Resurrection neatly packaged and domesticated. Liturgically we might think it’s all quite predictable and run of the mill, we don not expect to be surprised by a stranger’s face. The risen Lord is a revelation not in the sense of making himself plain in a straightforward manner.
Rather, what is unveiled is a face that transcends simple recognisability, a presence that eludes our categories and stretches our capacities in the way in which God himself does. Christ’s risen presence in the New Testament provokes fear, bewilderment, doubt, joy, and amazement. It is profoundly questioning and generates a community whose life before this face and in this risen presence that is endlessly interrogative, and the communities response leads it into ever new complexities, ambiguities, joys and sufferings. This is only the beginning of the story because it is now their vocation to tell the others. Today is only the beginning of your story, tonight is another encounter with the risen Lord in the broken bread of this altar, and now you are called to tell others that Christ is alive.
Posted by: The Parish