Hope Reborn: The Journey to Emmaus

“As Christ is walking along, he meets two men who have nearly lost all hope. They are beginning to feel that life has no meaning for them. Christ understands their sorrow; he sees into their heart and communicates to them some of the life he carries within himself.”

St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 105

The story of two discouraged men making a long journey home after having witnessed the Lord’s grueling passion (Luke 24:13-35) is pure balm for the suffering soul, especially for any suffering in the ways St Josemaria indicates: having lost a sense of hope or of meaning in life. By the end of the story, Jesus reveals a startling nearness to Cleopas and his companion that they had intuited all along, but couldn’t quite put their finger on: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

The setting is the first Easter Sunday, late afternoon. Two men are making the seven-mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus—a journey lengthened by their bewilderment over the recent trial and execution of the man who had embodied all of their hopes. And they are met by a stranger who joins them on the road: “Jesus himself drew near and went with them” (Lk 24:15).

Jesus deliberately conceals His identity from them, as He prods Cleopas and his companion with questions about their obvious sorrow and agitation. He invites them to unburden themselves of their grief and confusion, refusing to be deterred by their initial, brusque surprise: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days” (24:18)? Instead, Jesus encourages them to tell Him all about what He already knows. He is the subject of their story, their disappointments, and their hopes.

Only after He has heard it all does the Lord lead them through a thorough reflection on the mission of the Messiah. Jesus does not immediately manifest Himself and command their faith and obedience. He chooses, instead, to lead them by the heart. He appeals to their hopes, corrects their misguided expectations, and sets everything right by redirecting them to God’s revelation: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (24:26)?

Once disposed to see more deeply into the mystery of His suffering, Jesus then completely opens their eyes in the breaking of the bread. Having prepared them to identify the Christ as the Suffering Servant, the Lord is free to reveal Himself in the broken bread—the Eucharist—and they get it! Cleopas and his companion behold the mystery and at once Jesus considers His work done and vanishes from their sight.

If the scandal of Jesus’ passion and cross seemed to void all of His powerful promises of salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, then the resurrection forces all disciples to rethink everything that they thought they had already understood about Jesus’ mission. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the Emmaus disciples had concluded sadly.

In the light of the resurrection, good and evil, justice and injustice, friendship and treachery, are revealed as reconcilable enemies. In God’s hands the most unlikely people, the most broken and even ugliest of instruments, are useful. The very things that destroy can become the tools for rebuilding, re-creating: Death brings life, weakness manifests strength, suffering paves the way to glory.

This is “the great Christian revolution” of which St Josemaria speaks: “to convert pain into fruitful suffering and to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we can conquer eternity” (Furrow, no. 887).

If the Resurrection is supposed to change everything about our lives, it is especially the domain of suffering that needs changing. In areas of pain and hurt we experience the least amount of understanding and acceptance, and are most tempted to rebel and become hopeless. Like the men en route to Emmaus it is extremely difficult to see outside of our suffering when immersed in it.

But maybe we don’t always have to.

Maybe the reason why we feel locked into our pain is that God wants us to stay there for a time and find Him in it. Jesus does not expect us not to feel pain, but to meet Him in the pain—and to discover the hope held out to us in it. It is precisely there, into that dark place, that Jesus inserts Himself as these men go along, sad. “He seeks us out,” St Josemaria observes, “just as he did the disciples of Emmaus, whom he went out to meet,” because “he knows our weakness” (Christ is Passing By, no. 75).

“They were walking along at a normal pace, like so many other travelers on that road,” St Josemaria continues, “And there, without any fuss, Jesus appeared to them, and walks with them, his conversation helping to alleviate their tiredness” (Friends of God, no. 313).

We understand the fatigue and sadness of these earliest Christians, their reaction to “the things that have happened in these days,” in this and the other resurrection accounts. But more importantly: Jesus understands our weakness, our shortsightedness, our need for answers—and without belittling us. Rather, He engages us in our search. He leads us step by step to the answer, respecting the pace of our understanding, until we are ready to be “startled” by how close He has been all along. Such a revelation brings with it a responsibility, to which Cleopas and his friend immediately respond: “And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem” (Lk 24:33).

Disciples who previously struggled to reconcile the Lord’s promises of salvation with the evident defeat of His passion suddenly turn harbingers of the full gospel revelation of suffering and sacrifice. It was always what the Lord said it was: a narrow path traversed by those who would deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him.

When suffering hits us in the same way as the Emmaus disciples—when our human hopes are tested by how fragile sickness, violence, and betrayal actually make us feel—we should feel the approach of the “stranger” at our side, and let Him put His questions to us. If we allow Him to accompany us along our journey, to “stay with us,” we will find that He communicates new life to us, remaking our hearts into the privileged place of encounter with Him.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019) and Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith (Scepter Publishers 2020). Father's latest book is Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel (Scepter Publishers 2021). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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