We read Holy Scripture in order to learn God’s ways in His dealings with men, ways which invariably prove to be mysterious and baffling to our thoughts and expectations. Most especially do we find ourselves both challenged and bewildered by those events which took place between the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and His ascension into heaven forty days later.
Holy Scripture and tradition record ten distinct apparitions of the risen Jesus to various groups or individuals, but perhaps the most intriguing of them all is the apparition, on the very day of the Resurrection, to two disciples when they were on the way to Emmaus — a little village located seven or eight miles from Jerusalem. To this event Saint Mark makes a brief reference in his Gospel (Mark 16:12), but Saint Luke tells in vivid details the account of what actually took place.
“And behold, two of them went, the same day, to a town which was sixty furlongs from Jerusalem, named Emmaus. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that while they talked and reasoned with themselves, Jesus himself also drawing near, went with them. But their eyes were held, that they should not know him. And he said to them: What are these discourses that you hold one with another as you walk and are sad?” (Lu 24: 13-17)
From these words of Saint Luke we try to imagine two men on a long journey, walking along, when suddenly they find a third companion, as it were, another ordinary traveler, joining their conversation, and doing it so unobtrusively and so sweetly that they do not even notice the intrusion. And considering that the two were disciples of Our Lord, we feel certain that their failing to recognize Him must have been the effect of a divine dispensation, and could not be without a purpose. Naturally, therefore, we ask: What was the purpose?
As a matter of fact, many more burning questions begin to arise in our minds. Why in the whole wide world did He choose to appear to those two discouraged and tired travelers? And why in such a retired place? Why appear, and yet, as it were, stay hiding? Why all this reticence? Why not manifest the triumph of His divinity as conspicuously as He manifested the reality of His human nature by the public manner of His Crucifixion? In other words, why not blaze in the midst of the Holy City or on the pinnacle of the Temple, as He blazed on Mount Tabor, for all men to see and to be convinced?
But obviously this was not His way, and we must take Him as He reveals Himself. We cannot reconstitute Him from our preconceived ideas. For Jesus is absolutely unique, and there is nothing in our thoughts and experiences that even begins to anticipate what the God-Man is to do, or how He is to do it. So let us continue with the facts as given to us by Saint Luke:
“And he said to them: What are these discourses that you hold one with another as you walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleophas, answering, said to him: Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that have been done there in these days? To whom he said: What things?” (Lu 24:1-19)
The two disciples at this point in time did not know who it was that was talking to them, but now that we know, we can only exclaim, in adorational bewilderment: And what a question! Of course, Jesus knew what they were discussing and why they were sad. But what could be the purpose of this approach? The scholars of our time, mostly disciples of higher criticism, throw no light on mysterious passages like this, for it takes more than critical scholarship to penetrate the enigmatic devices of love. We shall have Saint Bernard, in a moment, reveal to us what the Great Lover of souls was aiming at. But let us continue with Saint Luke for a while longer:
“To whom he said: What things? And they said: concerning Jesus of Nazareth….And how our chief priests and princes delivered him to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we hoped that it was he that should have redeemed Israel…Then he said to them: O foolish, and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have spoken. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things that were concerning him. And they drew nigh to the town whither they were going: and he made as though he would go farther. But they constrained him, saying: Stay with us, because it is towards evening, and the day is now far spent. And he went in with them.” (Lu 24: 19-29)
So far, we have read the facts as given by Saint Luke, and we sigh, and wonder, and ask within ourselves: What does it all import? What means this feigning to go away? And this allowing Himself to be prevailed upon to stay? And if, as it seems, he had the intention all along to remain with them, why did He act as if it were their proposal, not His?
It is in such matters that we must go to the Church for enlightenment, and the Church sends us to those set up for us to be our exemplars and teachers: the Saints and the Doctors of the Church. Saint Bernard, from the depth of his meditations on the mysteries of Scripture, will give us many important clues. With such help, we find ourselves capable of understanding other mysterious parts of the Bible, as well as understanding much that is enigmatic in God’s dealings with us, whether in our own personal spiritual lives or in the general history of the Church.
“Perhaps,” answers Saint Bernard, “He withdrew Himself, that He might be recalled the more earnestly, and the more ardently retained. For thus He feigned to be going farther, not that He intended to do so, but so as to be invited to stay with that tender solicitation, ‘Stay with us, because it is toward evening, and the day is now far spent.’ (Luke 24:29). This kind of pious feint is rather a salutary dispensation of Providence, meant to exercise a truly devout soul. Passing by, He means to be stopped; going away, He is willing to be recalled: His departure is a dispensation of Providence; His return is ever the purpose of His will; and both are the effects of infinite wisdom, the great ends of which He alone can fathom.”
These are the words of Saint Bernard, shedding light on what the Saint calls a “dispensation of Providence,” and what earlier Fathers preferred to call the “Economy,” meaning by that term God’s government of the world in the interest of the salvation of souls. For God seeks souls by a kind of stratagem, wishing not so much to impose His truth, as to attract us to Himself; to be sought after, won over, and even prevailed upon. He reveals, in order that He may be, as it were, a discovery of love. Instead of flashing like a shooting star, His truth rather dawns like the morning. This keeps our faith free and meritorious. It also keeps our life on earth a decisive trial of fitness for the life of heaven.
But let us continue with Saint Luke’s narration:
“And it came to pass, whilst he was at table with them, he took bread and blessed, and broke, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to the other: Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in the way, and opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24: 30-32)
Every word is full of deep mystery, and how our own hearts would burn within us were He to walk also with us, and in like manner, to “open to us the scriptures”! For not only the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, but all believers on the way to heaven, need to have the Scriptures opened to them. This therefore is the fundamental prayer of the Church, and is fully answered for all those who persevere in faithful docility and seek the Church as a teacher.
One such faithful son of the Church, the great biblical scholar, Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637), having sought the answers from the Saints and Doctors of the Church, has this to communicate to us of their collective wisdom. Commenting on the last episode we quoted from Saint Luke, he says:
“Verse 30. He took bread and blessed. He blessed it by causing it to become His body as in the consecration of the Eucharist.”
And after giving many excellent reasons for his Contention that Our Lord vanished mysteriously after having given Himself to the disciples in the consecrated Host, a Lapide concludes with the testimony of tradition, thus:
“Furthermore, this is the opinion of the great majority of the Fathers. So the author quoted by Saint Chrysostom says, ‘The Lord not only blessed the bread, but gave it with his own hand to Cleophas and his companion. But that which is given by His hand is not only sanctified, but is sanctification and the cause of sanctity to the recipient.’
“And Saint Augustine in his homily on this passage says: ‘How did the Lord will to make Himself known? By the breading of bread. We are content then, that in the breading of bread the Lord is made known to us. In no other way is it His will to reveal to Himself. Therefore, although we shall not see Him in bodily form, He has given us His flesh to eat.’”
This therefore is the testimony of a most competent authority on the general and traditional understanding of what actually took place at Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday. And we who seek to learn God’s ways in dealing with us are thus encouraged to draw a few spiritual conclusions, knowing that the Holy Ghost must mean to teach us, since He inspired Saint Luke to report with such care all those sacred events.
The first Easter Sunday was unquestionably the climax of Our Lord’s physical life on earth; the same day was also the beginning of His mystical life in the Church. Our Lord’s physical presence among men was terminated by His victory over death; His mystical presence will last to the end of time. And so as soon as He placed Himself sacramentally under the guise of the Eucharist, His physical presence vanished mysteriously from before the eyes of His disciples.
And it is now in the Sacrament of the Altar that we must recognize His presence, for it is in the same sacrament that He must continue to “walk with us in the way, and to open to us the Scriptures.”