Eastertide in Emmaus
Text: Luke 24:13-35
The wind cut through me while snow flurries dusted my hair and beard. It was the last of a barrage of family burials; first, my father, then a few years later my brother, and now my mother. I stood at the grave with Jennell, Erin, Josh, cousins, and church members from Wilmington, Newport News, and Alexandria.
I knew the final graveside prayer by heart, but the only words I heard the pastor say that day were, “the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed.” The graveyard was in Virginia, but I could have sworn I was standing in the middle of Emmaus.
You would be hard pressed to find Emmaus on any map, ancient or modern, but I have had my passport stamped there on several occasions. I would be shocked if you had not done the same. The road to Emmaus is less a route on a map than a life course to chart when “the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed.”
In Luke, two disciples, one named, one not, are on their way to Emmaus. They are ready to go anywhere other than where they are, ready to find any road that will take them away from their grief. So, they take the road out of Jerusalem, heading to Emmaus.
Earlier on that March day in Virginia, after the funeral, I listened to people who loved me try to console me, try to say those things that would make the shadows shorten just a bit and would somehow speed the coming of dawn. I marveled at the distance they had come for the funeral and the love that they showed me and my family, but all I wanted to do was to get out of that church and get on the road to Emmaus, to head somewhere that the dark did not cast such a relentless pall. I wanted to go someplace where I could figure out how in the world I could possibly carry on when death had had the last word with all my closest family.
This may sound odd, even harsh, but there is something selfish about grief and yet it is not by choice. In times of grief, all we can see is what we have lost, what we will miss, how life will always be something less than what it was before. When “the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed,” we can see only far enough to take the next step toward Emmaus. We cannot begin to see those who are praying for us or standing beside us. It is no great surprise then that the grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter cannot see anyone but a stranger who joins them on the road.
The stranger invites them to talk about their grief, to talk about their beloved friend who has died on a cross outside Jerusalem. And, they do. They tell the stranger stories about Jesus, stories they can hardly wait to tell, and how he had been their greatest hope and is now their greatest disappointment. Who can muddle through grief without telling stories, without talking about loved ones now gone?
In the finest funeral sermon that I have ever heard, William Sloane Coffin talks about his own grief over the senseless and untimely the death of his young adult son, Alex. “While the words of the Bible are true,” writes Coffin, “grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’? The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that ‘there’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away’ (Lord Byron).”
Maybe Luke does not intend for us to be too hard on the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who cannot see anything other than a stranger walking with them. Even in their grief, they have not lost their manners. These two could have waved goodbye to the stranger, glad to see him continue on his way, happy to have some peace and quiet, free from all his Bible talk. Instead, they invite the stranger inside.
It is not long before the guest becomes the host of the table, takes break and breaks it and gives it to them and finally they see that Jesus is the one who has been walking alongside them all the way. Easter comes to Emmaus, just the place where they thought they could be alone with their grief.
Coffin goes on to say, “That’s why immediately after a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers – the basics of beauty and life – people who sign letters simply, `Your broken-hearted sister’.”
No sooner do they recognize Jesus in the stranger than he is gone. They do not spend time wishing that he had stayed just a little longer. They rejoice that he had come alongside them when they were distraught, walked with them even when they did not recognize him in their midst, ate with them even when they thought they were the hosts.
As I think back on my own trips to Emmaus, I marvel at those who have been the embodied presence of Christ for me, those who have withstood my anger and outrage at the pain of death, those who have walked with me when all I could see were lengthy shadows, long, dark evenings, and unrecognizable strangers, those who believed for me when all I could believe was how God had failed me.
Coffin closes his remarkable funeral sermon: “And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come. So, I shall—so let us all—seek consolation in that love which never dies and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.”
After supper, the disciples no longer want to stay in Emmaus. They want to go home, to tell the others that their grief is real, but grief is not the final word. Over time, my own grief subsided and I heard again the whole prayer for every pilgrim who is spending this Easter season in Emmaus. In your own times of grief, may you be able to hear the whole funeral prayer and may you find that it is no stranger standing next to you whenever you travel the Emmaus Road.
And so, I pray, and so, we pray:
O Lord, support us all the day long
until the shadows lengthen
and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging,
and a holy rest,
and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.