The Emmaus Prayer
There is something terribly elusive about Easter. We are familiar with the tough terrain of Holy Week, its betrayal and denial, duplicity and public execution. No matter how boisterous our real or virtual Easter celebrations, we are far less familiar with the elusive terrain of Easter, where it leads or whether we can trust that it leads anywhere but to an excruciating dead end.
If you worry that I am overstating my case, read the ending of any of the four Gospels. You will read the painful detail of the final week of Jesus’ life – his last supper, his agony in the garden, his trials before the Sanhedrin and then Pilate, his torture by Roman guards, the horrific march to Golgotha, the mocking and derision at the foot of the cross until his final breath, and his burial in a borrowed tomb.
The stories of Easter, though, are few in number and sparse in detail. It is not because Easter is unimportant to the four Gospel writers. It is because, even for the four evangelists, Easter is just that terribly elusive.
Luke’s Easter Emmaus story is a case in point. Emmaus was a hole in the wall some seven miles outside Jerusalem. Luke, though, has no interest in geography. He is interested in what Emmaus is rather than how you find it on GPS. Fred Buechner says Emmaus is “the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, `Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway’. . . Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die.”
For Luke, Emmaus is not so much where they are going, it is what they are doing. They are getting out of town, on the way to wherever they can go to forget that what is lovely and sacred dies – to Emmaus, the place for forgetting.
They are joined on the road to forgetting by someone who makes them remember. Luke tells us that the stranger is the Risen Jesus, but for the two despairing disciples, he is just an annoying stranger, seemingly, the only person on earth who has not heard about the crucifixion of Jesus.
The two disciples pour out their broken hearts to this utter stranger. They had hoped Jesus was the one to bring in the promised reign of Israel. The stranger listens. Then, he speaks and he is surprisingly curt. He does not say, “I know you must really be hurting now. I can feel your pain.” He says nothing so trite. No, he calls them: “You idiots! Fools!” Then he asks them: “Have you never read your Bible?” and goes on to give them an Old Testament 101. By the time, he has explained the story of Abraham, Moses, David, the Exile, and the people’s return to Jerusalem, this trio has reached the disciples’ home.
This stranger that we know as the Risen Jesus bids them farewell, but they say: “No. Stay with us for evening is coming.” By this point, they may be ready for this biblical know-it-all to move along, but instead, they mind their manners and offer this stranger their hospitality.
Once inside the disciples’ house, this story starts to have a familiar ring. The sage stranger takes bread, blesses it and breaks it and gives it to the two disciples. At that moment, the fog lifts and they know that he is no stranger; he is the Risen Jesus. The women at the tomb were not spreading silly stories about Jesus being raised to new life, after all.
At that moment of recognition, two things happen almost simultaneously. First, the risen Jesus vanishes from their sight, but he does not vanish from their hearts. They may not have a full understanding of Easter, but they do know that the Risen Jesus had walked the road to Emmaus with them.
Second, like the Risen Jesus, these two disciples leave Emmaus, even though it is late at night. If Emmaus is the place to go when hope has decayed and died, the place to go to forget, then it is not the place to remain when hope is restored and memory warms the heart. It is not just that they want to leave; they MUST leave. They have seen the Risen Lord. They have a story to tell, women who deserve an apology, and hope to share.
I love this story. I love the way Luke tells it. I love its powerful reserve. I love the way it challenges the pious Christian comment: “I am on a sacred journey to find Jesus.” Emmaus is about a God out to find us, and often finding us, like the two disciples, on the road to forgetting.
When I find myself on my own retreat to Emmaus, I often turn to a prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In Luke’s Emmaus story, two disciples invite Jesus to, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” The Book of Common Prayer captures their ancient act of hospitality, their Emmaus prayer, in these moving words: “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.”
There is a lovely old hymn that is not sung too often today, largely because it is an evening hymn and most of our worship services are in the morning. In it, the prayer from the Book of Common Prayer is changed from the plural to the singular: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide . . . help of the helpless, O abide with me.” I commend that prayer for anyone to say or sing several times a day, but it is not the Emmaus prayer. The Emmaus prayer is always a plural prayer. “Stay with us” are the words from the two hospitable disciples. It is not just their prayer, but the prayer of the church, a plural prayer.
The Emmaus prayer is certainly not a command invitation, as if you and I had that kind of command over God. Nor is it a petition for the Risen Jesus to stay only with us and keep us safe, especially in this time of crisis. It is a plural prayer for us, but one that leads us out to follow the Risen Jesus into the broken world for whom he died and for whom God raised him to new life.
To pray for Jesus to abide with us, is to pray for our eyes to be opened to God’s risen presence in the most unlikely places, among the most unexpected strangers. When God answers this prayer, we will no longer be able to drive by bombed out neighborhoods thankful that we do not live there, no longer look at the Statue of Liberty and not see her weeping when we demonize immigrants, no longer look the other way when millions of fellow citizens have no access to health care, pretending that their problem is not our problem.
If we are to pray for the Risen Jesus to stay with us, the church cannot be a fallout shelter to which we run from a world gone mad, a safe place to hide and sing our joyful, campfire songs while God’s children cry out in misery out there. The tomb could not hold Jesus, neither can any church building. He is risen! He is found at the table of grace, for sure, but he also walks with grace to all those places we would never think about going and says to us, “Now, come along.”
“Stay with us” may sound like a nice, sweet, safe, innocuous church prayer. “Sweet hour of prayer.” “Sweet hour of prayer.” But this Emmaus prayer extends far beyond Sunday morning worship. It intrudes into every day and every part of our lives. Just ask the two men walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They probably asked themselves: “What bother can this stranger possibly be?” “Sure, stay with us tonight.” “How much can it cost us to give this guy some bread and wine?”
How much did their hospitality cost them? It cost them their lives. They would never again walk that Emmaus road assuming that they were alone; never again walk that familiar path resolved that life is just one long extended disappointing replay. They would never again listen to scripture read or break bread and drink wine without remembering how the Risen Jesus came alive in their midst.
What about us? Are we ready to welcome the Risen Jesus not just into the church, but into our businesses and bedrooms and classrooms, into our battles and prisons and asylums, into our greatest joys and most convoluted struggles? I wish I could jump up and down and say, “Yes, Lord, I am ready,” but I fear I have grown far too comfortable pitching my tent in Emmaus.
What two despairing disciples discovered in the comfort of their Emmaus home was that it is not so much about whether we are ready or not. The Risen Jesus is on the road, ready for us right now, ready to open our eyes to see his life-giving presence even in our haunts of hiding, even in Cove, even in Emmaus.
With this story, Luke calls the church to make this Easter prayer, the Emmaus prayer. May we pray this prayer not only with our lips but with our lives: “Lord Jesus, stay with us; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.”
On pages 85-86 of Frederick Buechner’s, The Magnificent Defeat.