by Br Julian McDonald

Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, Jesus explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself. Luke 24, 13-35

This Sunday’s gospel is the story of the seemingly chance meeting that Cleopas and his friend had with the risen Jesus as they walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were so preoccupied with their own sense of loss and grief that they failed to recognise the stranger who joined them. At times, most of us can get so wrapped up in our own concerns that we become blind and deaf to what is going on around us. Moreover, we’ve probably all had the experience of having a complete stranger sitting next to us on a train, plane or bus who proceeds to give us an earful on some topic close to his or her heart. We do our best to be polite, but eventually just tune out. Now, if some very learned person decided to give you a full account of every allusion to himself that is to be found in the Jewish scriptures, ask yourself just how you would cope, especially if you were in a state of shock and grief. No wonder Cleopas and friend failed to recognise just who it was who had become their uninvited walking companion.

A few years ago I saw for the first time the painting above. It hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. It’s by the Spanish artist Diego Velásquez, and is called The Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus. It picks up the theme of seeing and not seeing, prominent in this Sunday’s gospel. While the kitchen maid is at the centre of the painting, her attention is directed towards what is happening at the background table in the top left-hand corner. Her gaze invites me to look where she is looking and to ask myself just who is really at the centre of the painting. And that leads me to other questions like: “As I go about my day-to-day activities, whom do I notice and who escapes my notice? Who is at the edge of my attention and whom do I overlook completely? Are there people whom I am called to notice, but who miss out because I am preoccupied with my own concerns and self-interest? While coronavirus is currently at the front and centre of our attention, there is little chance of walking and sharing conversation with others, but there is still scope for walking alone in our neighbourhoods and trying to take in what might otherwise escape our attention, even if it’s crying out to be addressed. Maybe we can look for signs of hope and new life, for indications of the presence of the divine, for anyone demanding for attention or simply looking for no more than an acknowledgement or a smile. After all, we are meant to be messengers of hope and instruments of resurrection for everyone we encounter.
The two disciples were no more insensitive or slower to get it than we are. They gave the stranger a very good summary of the events of the previous week that had robbed them of Jesus and thrown them into total confusion. But, like us, they had absorbed through their senses of sight and hearing what had gone on in the narrow world around them. However, their brains, like ours had developed filters that allowed them to see and hear only what they interpreted as necessary. It was only when Jesus repeated the familiar action of breaking and sharing bread that they felt the pull of the sacred and the familiar drawing them into communion with him and with one another, and lifting them up. It was that experience that drove them to rush back to Jerusalem where they joined Peter and the other disciples in affirming one another with the realisation that had hit them: “Yes, he really is risen!” We, too, can be deaf and blind to what others, including Jesus, want to bring to our notice. Sunday’s gospel serves to remind us of that.
I conclude with a story called The Bus to Emmaus:
Eric, a final-year medical student had to break his internship experience to return to university for a month to complete his final exams. Upset and miserable at the prospect of leaving behind his fiancée, he made his way to the Sydney Bus terminal to start the long trip back. When the bus made a comfort stop at a roadside cafe about six hours into the journey, Eric drifted into the café, sat down on an unravelling, revolving seat at a grubby counter and ordered a cup of coffee. The counter was U-shaped, so he found himself sitting across from an elderly woman. She took one look at Eric and blurted out: “Dearie, you sure do look miserable.” “I am”, he replied and, before he knew it, his voice started to crack with emotion.

The woman reached across the counter to pat him on the cheek with a dirt-under-the-fingernail hand. When he saw it, he pulled back instinctively. She simply asked: “What’s wrong, honey?” So he told her about his fiancée, how much he loved her and how hard the next month would be for both of them. He even produced a photo of his fiancée from his wallet. “Oh, isn’t she just the most beautiful young woman!” was the response.
The elderly woman then started to tell Eric how she had been married to a travelling salesman, who had died just a year or so back. She told how they would both weep each time he had to go away, but how happy they were on his return. “Marriage is wonderful,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll have a very happy marriage. You wait and see, everything will be fine.”
She then suggested that he might feel better if he had something to eat, so without hesitating, she ordered a muffin from under the scratchy plastic. She picked it up, broke it in halves and handed it to him. Just then, there was an announcement that one of the buses at the roadhouse was about to depart. “Oh my goodness! My bus is about to leave.” And she disappeared.