Who will we meet on the road to Emmaus?
This morning in our gospel we hear the story of the man who meets a pair of disciples as they are leaving Jerusalem, avoiding certain persecution. The two disciples, one who is named Cleopas, see only a stranger, asking them what has happened. They tell him the story of Good Friday and the Resurrection, and lament that they did not see Jesus for themselves. And the stranger tells them: but haven’t you missed the point? Didn’t you believe the divine message for yourselves? They arrive in the village and urge the stranger to sit and dine with them. And only when he has blessed their bread are their eyes opened. But just as they realize who the stranger really is, he vanishes.
The story may speak to us on many levels these days. How similar we are to Cleopas and his companion, forced upon a road not of their choosing, shell-shocked, reality toppled upside down, grieving the loss of their previous life. We may envy them – able to chat freely with an interesting stranger they run into, to extend the invitation of hospitality, and to break bread. Indeed, the gospel is a narrative of random encounters, of strangers who become friends, and unlikely characters who impart wisdom or offer aid in passing. Those encounters are the connective tissue of the gospel – just as they are of our community. They are the way that good ideas are spread, minds are widened, and lives and friendships are made. Take them away from us – force us to avoid our neighbors, or dodge the stranger, or withhold a hug to an acquaintance in need – and community begins to fray.
So, who will we meet on the road to Emmaus as it exists today?
Will it be perhaps our neighbor whose face we recognized but whose name we never learned until it was too awkward to ask them for it? That same neighbor whose wave we now reciprocate at a distance – our only way of imparting solidarity?
Perhaps it is the young woman who stands at the intersection and asks for money, and yet, we are too nervous to put down our window for fear of what invisible danger might drift inside?
Perhaps it is the senior in the long-term care home who is trapped in their room, while around them the friends they played bridge with and dined with each night are stricken by a terrible disease?
Perhaps it is the young man at the start of a promising career, whose job is now lost and whose future is uncertain?
Perhaps we meet ourselves on the road and we fail to recognize ourselves, for we are weary, and bored and afraid, and those are not qualities we want to see.
It is true that Cleopas and his companion did not have COVID 19 to worry about. But perhaps we forget how terrible life must have been for them. The mob had turned. Their teacher was now a villain. They were suddenly on the wrong side. Leaving Jerusalem was a smart choice, but they surely felt the shadow at their backs. They knew they were in danger, and, like a virus, the risk of being called out was one they knew was out there but could not see. And yet they meet a stranger, and they can’t help but speak to him and share everything. They offer what they have, so that stranger will not be alone.
And so, we learn that the true question is not whom we will meet on the road to Emmaus, on the journey of life, on the path of faith. In truth, much of the time that is beyond our control.
The real question is how we will meet them.
The gospel is about how we respond when life is unpredictable, uncomfortable, and scary. When we are doubters like Thomas, and afraid like Peter, and grief-stricken like Cleopas.
In my home province of Nova Scotia, greeting your neighbor is standard practice. When we take walks during our summers there, we wave at every car that passes; and many people stop and chat. The grocery store line, we always joke, is a true test of our Ontario timelines: there is no just running in for milk. Or at least, there wasn’t before this spring.
So, the tragedy of what happened in Nova Scotia, to a small town where people naturally open their doors to strangers seeking help, or chat by the side of the road, is all the more heartbreaking. Were that lost now – out of fear and anxiety – a defining characteristic of my home province would change forever. And then there is this: how can a community of people who need to hold and care for one another do so when they cannot be together? How can we maintain our humanity for one another when something as fundamental as shaking a neighbor’s hand is taken from us? How could the disciples carry on the gospel, when they were scattered to the winds and no longer felt safe?
At these times, perhaps this is our calling: to find community wherever and however we can, and to be a positive presence in it. All through the Gospel, Jesus has been giving us clear instructions: look for me in the people you meet on the road. That is where I am. What you do to them, you do to me. Though we are isolated, shell-shocked, and grieving, the gospel puts our foot forward to anticipate opportunity around the next corner, to see Jesus in the stranger who falls in step beside us.
And one more thing – one especially important thing right now. We are all human. We are locked up with one another. We are bored, and we are restless, and we are disheartened. We are afraid for those we love; we are afraid of the future. We might lose our tempers. We might not want to get out of bed. We might feel loss. We might feel like Cleopas, telling a stranger a story he can hardly believe has actually happened.
But the story of the road to the Emmaus is not only a reminder to welcome the stranger. It is a road upon which we are reminded to accept ourselves. For Jesus also finds us there; Jesus breaks bread with us and comforts us. Who will we meet on the road to Emmaus? That may be beyond what we can control. But how we meet them – that is our choice. May we do so with grace and faith.