Lenten Studies - Week 5: “The Road to Emmaus”

Reflecting on the Gospel Story:

Looking at the present as a place of despair

The story of Emmaus is unique because it is the only narrative that allows us to listen to how the disciples of Jesus interpret his death immediately following the event. We meet two disciples heading away from Jerusalem, the place that is identified as the graveyard of their hope. With such a catastrophic loss behind them, it seems likely that they are heading back to Galilee, where no doubt they will try to pick up the old rhythm of the lives they led before they met Jesus.

One of the disciples is identified as Cleopas. The evangelist John identifies one of the Marys at the foot of the cross as the wife of Clopas, or Cleopas. This might suggest that CIeopas’s companion on this road is not another male disciple, but his wife, Mary. Whatever their identities, the narrative focuses on their condition as two people who are overcome by their own loss, frankly bewildered by the violent turn of recent events. They speak out of their experience of Jesus: that he proved himself a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and the people. They go on to speak of their expectations of Jesus: they had hopes that he would be the one to set Israel free.

We listen to Cleopas as he puts together both the disciples' experience of Jesus and their expectations of him. This association makes sense, since we not only have experience of people, but our positive experience of them leads us to have expectations of them. Our expectations are deepened the   more positive our experience.

Cleopas shares the sad news that he and his companion’s expectations about Jesus are well and truly ended. It is not only the body of Jesus that has been buried; their hope in Jesus has been buried as well. Who they were was tied up with who they believed he was; their self-identity as disciples of Jesus has been shattered; they are, literally, ‘has-beens.'

Experience means learning through direct personal contact with people and things, and new experiences or information can challenge people to think again. The disciples on the road to Emmaus are forced by their new experience of the death of Jesus not only to reassess Jesus but also to reassess themselves. Now they are former disciples of a dead prophet with nowhere to go but away from Jerusalem, the place where everything went wrong.

Cleopas explains the reason for abandoning hope in Jesus: 'Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.’

Jesus did not die of old age or natural cause or by accident; his death was an execution organised by the hierarchy and effected by the civil authority. It was not done secretly at night but in public at high noon, in full view of everyone; what happened did not take place in a corner. It was so public that Cleopas earlier wondered about his fellow traveller: 'Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?' Jesus’ death sentence, authorised and executed by the highest authority, seems to proclaim with finality that the official one seems to be the decisive one.

Journeying with Jesus

Following the new Companion Guide written for groups: by Father Denis McBride

Group discussion

In what ways do the disciples going to Emmaus view the past as a place of despair?
Have you ever, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, been 'bewildered by the turn of recent events’?
Have you ever sought out your own escape route to Emmaus because the present was too difficult to bear?
Have you ever had experience of staring at the present moment as a place of pain?
Like the disciples of Emmaus, everyone has a graveyard of hopes that they once cherished but have now been buried. What have you buried in your graveyard of hopes?

Experience and expectation

Towards evening, the risen Jesus, still a stranger, reinterprets his disciples' experience of recent events in the light of the past story contained in scripture. He offers a different interpretation of the same events the disciples have described, one that tries to make sense of pain and rejection and brokenness. Luke employs a strategy that is not peculiar to theology, but is used in other disciplines, e.g. psychiatry and counselling. Often when a client goes for counselling, the conversation starts with describing the current crisis; the counsellor always tried to get a sense of the bigger picture. Who we are today is not explained by today but by the sum of our yesterdays. The key to unraveling the present lies somewhere in the past; the answer to why we are the way we are today is concealed in what has already happened. The dynamic is to stop staring at the present moment, the place of pain, and travel backwards into the old story in the hope that, seeing the new event in this larger context, we can understand not only what is happening, but also what is going on.

In the gospel passage, we watch Jesus moving away from an exclusive inspection of the details of what has happened ‘during these last few days’ to placing the story into the context of prophecy. Luke is not just reflecting on what has happened, but presenting his interpretation in the perspective of faith and prophecy. It is this perspective that will be the source of new insight.

The practice of assessing the past afresh in the light of new events is something we do ourselves periodically, and sometimes we discover how time dramatically alters our perception of events. We can probably think of an event in our own past that at the time it happened did not register as critical or significant in our life story; only when we look back at our life from a different vantage point do we appreciate how important that event was for the course of our life.

More often than not, the significance of an experience or event is not offered at the time it happens; sometimes we have to wait for months or even years before we can truly appreciate the importance that some events have exercised in our life story. The past is not dead; it lingers on as a resource for meaning or it awaits new interpretation. Life happens chronologically, but its meaning does not come to us in such a linear manner.

Looking at the present as a place of hope

The disciples look on the death of Jesus, as many probably did, as the end of a promising calling, not the fulfilment of a promised one. Their hope that Jesus would prove to be the awaited Messiah is now cancelled by their experience of what had happened to him. In that sense, one has to acknowledge the disciples' level-headedness: they do not hold fast to their hopes when their experience tells them otherwise. Their expectations have been reluctantly laid down in the tomb, beside the dead body of Jesus.

Our expectations are always modified in the light of our experience. If expectations about others or situations mostly grow out of our experience, our experience tends to have the final say. Expectations are deepened, modified or cancelled in the light of what we learn over time.

The disciples are stuck in the present as a place they see as profoundly hopeless. They have been abandoned by Jesus in death; he has been violently taken from them. Since they have no 'elsewhere' from which to fund their injured hope, it dies. All the signs point unambiguously to the double truth that not only is Jesus dead, but so too is their own discipleship.

There is a sense in which we can see the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as our contemporaries, fellow travellers journeying along a grey landscape of ambiguity and disappointment where, in the in uncertain light of what is seen and sensed, so many cherished hopes, now withered, have been relegated to lost causes. However, what the disciples saw as hopeless we interpret as good news, not least because we interpret their story in that larger frame of scripture. And that is what the risen Jesus does in response to his two disciples.

Group discussion

Have you ever found that time has altered your perception of an event?
What do you think is the difference between understanding what is happening and understanding what is going on?
Have you ever travelled backwards into an old story in the hope that, seeing the event in a larger context, you were able to make sense of what was happening now?
In an afternoon’s walk, Mary, the wife of Cleopas, journeys through a variety of emotions: from loss, disappointment and hopelessness to a burning heart on hearing a stranger make sense of all that had happened recently. Have you ever had a similar experience, one in which you felt really stuck, but someone helped you to open your eyes to new possibilities?
The past is a source of wisdom; somewhere in our past lies the key to understanding why we have ended up the way we are today. How often do you consult the past of your story for understanding?
Have you ever met a stranger on your travels who really helped you?

Recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread

The teaching exercise of breaking open scripture is not an academic one, but one that is eminently practical; its purpose is to reinterpret the experience of the two disciples in such a way that a sense of divine providence is intelligible in what has happened in the last few days. The disciples are unaware of their own sacred tradition, and that unawareness deprives them of making sense of their own experience. Luke manages the story with a shrewd use of suspense: while the revelation on the road leads to burning hearts, the recognition itself is reserved for table fellowship.

Luke is writing for a community who will never meet the risen Lord on whatever roads they travel, but have an opportunity to meet him in the breaking of bread. The structure of the Emmaus story gives the Christian community a perfect reminder of the possibility of coming to know Jesus as Lord in the breaking of bread, which is what happens in our Christian communities:

  1. The coming together

  2. The hearing of the story

  3. The gathering around the table

  4. The breaking of the bread

  5. The recognition of Jesus as Lord

  6. The renewal of personal discipleship

  7. The departure to share the new experience as good news

In the light of their new experiences, their recognition of the risen Jesus, the disciples reassess their past: a recent past of injured hope is now healed in this fresh revelation. They are now able to understand why their hearts were burning within them. Their new experience helps them to make sense not only of the past few days but also of why they felt as they did on the road when the stranger was unfolding scripture to them. Their new experience gives them a new sense of purpose and a new authority, so they go back to the place they earlier longed to leave. Their return is not only to a place, but more importantly to a place they thought of as desolate. The experience marks the beginning of their new lives.


Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is heard by many people as a contemporary reflection on their experience.

Two disciples openly share their disappointment and loss on the road; they do not disguise how they see things; they tell the story of how they lost their dreams and their hopes.

They are joined by Jesus, who listens to them and opens their minds to a perspective which is larger than their limited experience.

in going to table, the disciples meet the one they thought had gone for ever, in the breaking of the bread. That experience enlivens them to take the road back to Jerusalem and share their new experience with their companions.

Communal Prayer

Lord Jesus, as we approach our solemn commemoration of your final journey into Jerusalem:

May we prayerfully and gratefully meditate on your passion and death.

May we identify with Peter and not with Judas.

May we be people of hope, not despair.

Help us to know that, even in the midst of sadness, hopelessness and suffering, our hearts can be made to burn within us through breaking open the Scriptures.

Give us the gift of being, through our practical support, our kindness and our listening, beacons of hope for others who are suffering.


Old Experience, New Meaning

Please click here to read Father Denis McBride’s article.