The journey is one of the oldest biblical symbols. Abraham hears the command to become a wandering Aramean; Israel makes a journey through the wilderness where it is covenanted with the living God. Luke groups Jesus’ most distinctive teaching in the section of his Gospel that describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Lk. 9:5119:28), while Acts recounts a series of journeys in an ever-widening circle outward from Jerusalem. Many find God as pilgrims to Lourdes, Knock or Compostela and, metaphorically, as they embark on new life courses.
Today’s Gospel is a narrative parable of post-resurrection faith, for the benefit of Luke’s pilgrim community and for the church through history.
Two people are leaving Jerusalem, in animated conversation about their shattered hopes. One is named Cleopas; the other, though unnamed, is identified by significant scholars as Mary the wife of Clopas, whom John places at the cross (Jn. 19:25)perhaps a veiled reference to the early Christian practice of missionary couples (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila). An unknown stranger joins them and asks, What are you discussing? Words spill out, constituting the longest speech in the Gospels by someone other than Jesus, culminating in the poignant words, We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel. They knew of the crucifixion and reports of the resurrection, but this did not fit into their deepest hopes.
The mood shifts dramatically when the stranger counters, O foolish and slow of heart to believe, and then proceeds to explain that the sufferings of the Messiah were foreshadowed in Scripture. As evening nears he acts as if he will leave, but they urge him to stay and offer him the hospitality of a meal. In language with eucharistic overtones, the Evangelist reports that he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. They then recognize him in the breaking of the bread and return to the place of their shattered hopes as heralds of the risen one.
This parable of a post-Easter journey has many levels of meaning. The travelers’ true understanding of the resurrection comes as Jesus breaks open the word of Scripture and then breaks bread with them, an icon of eucharistic liturgies through the centuries. A critical turning point comes when Jesus feigns leaving and they offer him hospitality. Hospitality to the stranger who may bear the presence of Christ was one of the earliest and most enduring Christian practices.
Their journey of shattered hope becomes one of vision transformed, an allegory perhaps of many Christians’ pilgrimages throughout the centuries. The approach of evening and the waning day suggest that Christ may enter and transform the lives of his disappointed followers when shadows fall over their flagging spirits or in the eventide of life. At his birth the Messiah brought consolation and joy to older people (Anna and Simeon). Age is no barrier to the power of God’s presence and word to set hearts aflame and to transform lives.
The Second Vatican Council described the church as the pilgrim people of God. This image has waned in recent teaching; pilgrimages tend to be messy and often unstructured. Now the church moves more like a tightly orchestrated procession with clearly assigned places. Many ordinary people continue their pilgrimage silently musing, We were hoping. Today’s Gospel and Luke’s whole theology of the Spirit, which will unfold in Acts, is a chronicle of the way God can walk with us in surprising, often unknown ways, reversing our path from fear and disappointment to make of us bearers of the power of the risen one.