The Road to Emmaus – Tuam Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock

Tuam Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock – Homily of Fr. Francis Mitchell, Adm., Westport.

The Third Sunday of Easter, A

8 May 2011

Many years ago when I was just a student of Theology, at about this time of the year, the lecturers and professors were bringing their courses to an end and we were in the throes of preparing for our exams.  What happened during that final week of lectures is something I will never forget.

The professor of New Testament at the time – now the Archbishop of Tuam – had spent most of the year lecturing on St. John’s Gospel, but at the end of his final lecture he chose a passage from St. Luke’s Gospel – the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus – to bring the curtain down on his course.  We didn’t wonder too much at him doing that as it was still from the New Testament and that was our subject.

Later, the professor of Old Testament – now the Bishop of Galway – delivered his final lecture, and it came as a bit of a surprise that he would chose a passage from the New Testament to draw his course to a close given that he had been working on the Old Testament texts for the year.  The passage he chose was the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

It got really interesting when the Moral Theology and Dogmatic Theology professors got in on the action – I don’t know how they managed it but they also ended their courses with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  And what put the tin hat on it altogether for me was when the Professor of Canon Law – now the Bishop of Dromore – lay down the Code of Canon Law and picked up St. Luke’s Gospel and read – yes, you’ve guessed it – the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Now, you could say that teaching us gave all these bishops a great start to their Episcopal ministries, or you could say, as I do, that this particular story is very special indeed.  I confess that I don’t remember what all these learned people said about this passage but I do remember feeling that the whole of Theology and the complete story of the life of the Church comes together in this simple story.

The people who listen to me Sunday after Sunday will have heard me say often that the passages of scripture the Church has chosen for us to reflect on each week are not just well-written historical texts; they are the Word of God, and “the Word of God is something alive and active…”  So the Gospel passage on any given Sunday speaks to us in the here and now and offers us a message full of hope and shines like a bright torch as we live our lives during the week that follows.

So let’s spend a couple of minutes with this story and see if we can uncover what the Lord is saying to us as individuals and as a group today.

The backdrop, of course, is the ministry of Jesus – all the good he did, the sermons he preached, the buzz he generated, and the hope he instilled in people that his way was the way forward and not the oppressive religious practices of the past.  Then there was his crucifixion and his shameful journey through the streets of Jerusalem with people screeching and roaring at him and mocking him as he stumbled along with the cross digging deep into his shoulder.  He made it to Calvary and even there he was mocked as he hung on his cross between two convicts.  He died a slow death, and his body was placed in a tomb the entrance to which was blocked with a huge rock and there were guards there in case any of his followers would reclaim the body.  And then Easter Sunday came … and we know what happened.

Jesus had twelve Apostles but he had hundreds and hundreds of followers or disciples, and our story today is about just two of them.  They had followed him and had been energised by what he did and what he had to say.  It’s clear they weren’t angry with Jesus when we meet them in this passage but they were disappointed and they seem to have felt foolish that they had placed all their eggs in one basket: “our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free…” they said.  And they are talking about all that had happened as they leave Jerusalem and head to Emmaus.  It’s significant, isn’t it, that they are leaving the place where it all fell apart, they are running away from the bad news, if you like.  That’s completely understandable and a very human reaction – to run away from bad news.  When people get news of serious illness they don’t want to dwell on it, they don’t want to believe it, and in their own way they run away from it.  Similarly when we hear of a sudden or unexpected or tragic death: our initial reaction is to dismiss it and say it’s not true, it can’t be true.  And what about those who are faced with unemployment or mortgage hikes or the repossession of their homes?  Bad news!  It’s the same reaction.  When we – as individuals or as the Church – hear any bad news that affects us directly we react exactly as the disciples reacted in the Gospel today.

So with their heavy hearts and their heads in their boots, as it were, the disciples try to understand what appears to be an unmitigated disaster.  They don’t look up, or if they do they don’t recognise the person who joins them.  He’s gentle and asks innocently what they’re talking about.  That question must surely have made them stop and look him in the eye, but still they didn’t recognise him.  Well, he must be the only one on the continent that hasn’t heard the only news headline there is.  And they tell the story from their perspective.

He listens respectfully, this stranger.  He allows them to get it off their chest maybe by asking the occasional leading question.  And when they have finished he takes their story and he reflects on it using the scriptures of the Old Testament – with which they were very familiar.  He explained how all that had happened was overseen by God the Father, and although it wasn’t how they would have written the story themselves, it was all part of God’s plan.

So when we reflect on our lives in the context of the scriptures they will clarify many things for us.  It won’t always be as we would plan it ourselves, but maybe it’s how God plans it for us!  And in our lives too, just as it was for Jesus himself, and in the life of the institution we call the Church or the Body of Christ, there will be suffering.  Why?  We don’t know, but it’s how God brings his plans to fulfilment.

The disciples having poured out their hearts, and having had another look at the story – but this time through the prism of the scriptures, the Stranger seemed to be about to leave them, but by now they were quite comfortable with him – in fact the power and the truth of his analysis of their situation had caused their hearts to beat and pound with hope and excitement inside them, so they invited him to come in and have something to eat with them.

When we go to Mass don’t we do exactly as they did: firstly we pour out our hearts: “I confess to almighty God and to you my brother and sisters that I have sinned…”  Then we listen to the Word of God from the Old Testament and the New, then the priest tries to make a link between those readings and our lives today, and from there we move to the Table, the Eucharistic Meal where the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared.

We are first of all nourished by the Word, and then we are nourished by Holy Communion.

As soon as the Stranger had taken, blessed, broken and shared the bread at the table in Emmaus the disciples recognised Who he was and they understood fully now what had happened and why it had happened.

Now that they had this Good News inside them they couldn’t be contained.  They had to bring it to others and they couldn’t wait until morning, so they hit the road back to Jerusalem and ran as fast as their feet would take them.  Remember how they had run away from Jerusalem and the bad news and the bad memories, now they are running ever faster in the other direction because what they have been given has to be shared.  It’s just like Mary at the Annunciation.  She had the Good News within her and she couldn’t settle, she “set out and went as quickly as she could to the hill country of Judah.  She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth” and she burst into song and praised God at the top of her voice – her Magnificat.

Can you just picture the two disciples hurtling along the dusty road from Emmaus to Jerusalem?  Remember we noted that Jesus had hundreds and hundreds of disciples, it’s it likely that there were several others on their way from Jerusalem on that same road too, and the two lads came running and shouting “turn back He is alive, come on we have to go back and tell the others…”

Now they were missionaries to their own who were still in Jerusalem in the depths of depression, in the heat of battle, swamped in bad news.

And that’s where the story impacts on us at this very moment, I believe.

Whether the story of our cross has been one from our home or school, our workplace, our diocese or our parish, whether it has been one that affected us personally or one that has affected our family; whether it has been the stories that have hurt us as the Church, the Body of Christ, we have been accompanied by the Stranger to Knock today; He has listened to our story – told with every breath we’ve taken and every heartbeat; he has shed light on it through this beautiful Gospel passage; he is about to feed us at the altar with the Bread that will be taken, blessed, broken, and shared, and at the end of Mass we will be sent as missionaries to ourselves, to those at home and at work, and to our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church and outside it.  We will be sent as missionaries with the words: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.

Surely our professors all those years ago couldn’t have chosen a better passage to send us on our way to preach the Gospel in parishes up and down the country and indeed throughout the world!   I think you’ll agree with me that it was an inspired decision on their parts!

So as we go from Knock this afternoon with this Good News, maybe we could express our prayer and our hope in the words of the Alleluia verse today: “May our hearts burn within us as he talks to us [on the way].”

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