Posted on:Wednesday 31st March, 2021
The Road to Emmaus story in Luke’s Gospel is an important part of Christian celebrations around Easter time, and is well-known as an account of one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus after his crucifixion and the discovery of the empty tomb. However, the mysterious, numinous and symbolic aspects of the story have also been prominent in Christian interpretation from the start. Arguably it does not really function as an evidential account at all, but as a story of divine revelation and discernment. After all, the two disciples, one named as Cleopas and one unnamed, fail to recognise Jesus for several hours during the journey, and only recognise him as they break bread over supper. It is thus a concealment or hiding-in-plain-sight story, and as such carries a wonderful dramatic sense of movement. It is perhaps this that makes it so vivid and indeed transformational. Described as an exquisite literary achievement, it functions well as a story. For me it has always seemed more powerful as a phenomenological image of transcendent meaning than as a factual account, and as such a story that remains appealing even to non-believers…
The Road to Emmaus now
The story in Luke Chapter 24, verse 13-35, is deceptively simple. It describes the encounter with a stranger on the road to Emmaus by a disciple named Cleopas and another unnamed disciple. They do not recognize him as Jesus, and discuss their sorrow at recent events in Jerusalem which have culminated in the crucifixion. When they reach Emmaus the stranger makes to continue but they persuade him to rest and eat with them, and it is at the supper table that they suddenly recognise him. A journey by three people along a road to a village 7 miles distant from Jerusalem is also a journey from despair to faith, as the religious truth of Christ’s sacrifice is revealed by the biblical exegesis of the stranger. As such the story is more about the making of meanings than about a resurrection appearance. Even in the original the suspicion lingers that the moment of revelation is more about reframing the recent events of the crucifixion than a flesh and blood encounter with the risen Christ. Only when Jesus breaks bread at the table do the disciples recognise him, whereupon he vanishes out of their sight. A similar story in Mark’s Gospel does not mention Emmaus at all, just saying in Chapter 16 verse 12 that two unnamed disciples claimed to have seen Jesus ‘in another form’ during a walk in the country, and that they were not believed. Only Luke elevates the Road to Emmaus story to an important role in his presentation of religious revelation, and presents it in such a compelling way.
Before I take a look at some of the ways that the story has been portrayed in art and in music, it is worth noting a few notable aspects of the story. Firstly, the failure to recognise the risen Jesus is not unique to the Road to Emmaus story. Famously, he is mistaken for the gardener by Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. Indeed, the fact that even those who know him well repeatedly fail to recognise the risen Christ appears to be quite a significant theme in the resurrection stories. Jesus is partially occluded from our view, and ‘seeing’ him requires a moment of recognition.
Village of Emmaus today
More prosaically, there has been much debate about whether Luke had a detailed first-hand knowledge of the geography of Palestine. What at first appears like a very concrete account of a journey to a named place at a distance of 7 miles from Jerusalem turns out to be harder to pin down than you might think. The Byzantine town of Emmaus Nicopolis would appear to be a shoo-in until it is pointed out that it is a full 15 and a half miles distant from Jerusalem. Motza also looks like a strong candidate when we learn that Josephus mentions the Emperor Vespasian settling 800 veteran soldiers at a place called Emmaus. But this is far too close to Jerusalem to fit with Luke’s story. Finally, there is the fortified village of Kiriath Yearim, the correct distance from Jerusalem, which is named as Emmaus by other ancient sources, including Eusebius. Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, who leads an archaeologist project there with Thomas Romer and Christophe Nicolle of the Collège de France, now claims that this hill and village should be identified as Emmaus. What everyone seems to agree is that geographical exactitude in Luke is always subject to his larger theological purposes. Even his selection of the significant religious number 7 may have been symbolic, rather than factual. It is perhaps safe to assume that, even for Luke, Emmaus was as much a visionary as a real destination.
The Walk To Emmaus by Lelio Orsi
The fact that the second disciple is unnamed led to much speculation in the early Christian Church about his or her identity. I rather like the suggestion that it might have been Mary, the wife or daughter of Cleopas, whose name was omitted because she was a woman, whose testimony on the matter would presumably not have been treated with the same level of respect. It has also been suggested that the story parallels that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, Chapter 8 verses 26-40, which also features a ritual act performed on the road from Jerusalem down to Gaza, namely the improvised baptism of the Ethiopian by Philip. However, in story terms, it might be more accurate to agree with the Christian writer John Gillman who wrote that ‘Luke's failure to identify Cleophas' [sic] companion by either name or gender may well be a strategy of inviting the reader to identify implicitly with that person, and thus to make the journey as Cleophas' companion’. There is certainly a sense in the story that we ourselves might be that companion on the road, and this universalisation of the recognition story has also been much commented upon.
Christ and His Disciples on the Way to Emmaus , 1571, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Both the encounter on the road to Emmaus and the subsequent supper at the village of Emmaus, at which Jesus is eventually recognised by his two travelling companions, have been popular subjects in religious art. Amusingly religious art has often sought to explain the failure of the disciples to recognise Jesus in a strikingly literal way by supposing he was wearing a large (usually a pilgrim’s) hat. Many of the early images of the story therefore have the Christ wearing fashionable headgear. The painting Camino de Emaús, by Lelio Orsi, 1560–65, is a good example, with all three travellers sporting wide brimmed floppy hats, presumably very practical in deflecting the fierce heat of the sun. Another fine example of hatted companions on the road together is the print Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1571. In general the supper has received more attention than the encounter on the road. Rembrandt is typical, for instance, in his painting Christ at Emmaus in 1648, in focusing his gaze on the moment of revelation, experienced over the supper table. The disciple on the left has pressed his hands together in prayer. Both companions are startled, and are displaying reverential awe, even if the waiter remains oblivious to the significance of what is happening.
Supper at Emmaus, 1648, by Rembrandt
The most famous representations of the story are probably the paintings by Caravaggio, which are both also set at the supper table (presumably hats having been hung up by the door). However, his two paintings of the same subject, though similar in structure, offer a dramatic contrast in style. The first, painted in 1601, and now in the National Gallery in London, is colourful, dramatic, almost cinematic. A beardless Christ (is that why they did not recognise him before?) is making a hieratic and benign gesture, and the disciples are reacting to the moment of discernment with signs of consternation and wonder. Even the waiter is looking interested, and no-one is paying attention to the supper of cooked chicken and bread, fruit and grapes, laid out on the table (although art critics have noted that these fruits would have been out of season at Easter). The painting Caravaggio created on the same theme six years later (and now in Milan) is altogether much darker. Christ’s raised fingers now appear more like a rhetorical gesture as he expounds a point of scriptural interpretation, and his listeners, whilst evidently engaged by his words, look as though they are yet to be convinced. Christ’s face now seems slightly troubled, and the faces of those of his listeners (as least those we can see) are all deeply marked by lines of age and experience. Whilst both of Caravaggio’s paintings were criticised for a lack of propriety, it must surely be acknowledged that the Milan painting also displays a strong sense of doubt and equivocation about the message being communicated over the supper table. It is perhaps a nice reminder that the Road to Emmaus story is arguably just as much a story about doubt as it is about faith.
Supper at Emmaus, 1601, by Caravaggio
Supper at Emmaus, 1606, by Caravaggio
In this context it is perhaps interesting to recall that J.S. Bach made the story of the Road to Emmaus the subject of his choral cantata 'Bleib bei uns denn es will Abend werden' BWV 6 (Stay with us because it will be evening), composed for an Easter service in 1725. The cantata is in six movements and lasts about 25 minutes. The first and last movements are for choir, while the four other movements are set for soloists, in a sequence of aria – chorale – recitative – aria, the standard structure for a Bach cantata. The music is thought to highlight contrasts between belief and unbelief, light and darkness, salvation and sin. John Eliot Gardiner notes that the main sense is one of bereavement. Jesus has departed (or shortly will depart) from his presence in the world. He may leave a message of hope, but there has also been a catastrophic loss. The two disciples on the road have doubts about the resurrection of Christ. They also apparently feel a powerful sense of fear as darkness begins to fall. They are open to the Christian message, but they are beset by uncertainty. And all this time they have not realised that they had been talking to the resurrected Christ. Perhaps it is this wistful sense of lamentation, of a truth just occasionally glimpsed in the face of a stranger, which makes the Road to Emmaus a story that carries a much weightier sense of importance than its brevity on the page would suggest. For Bach this weight of loss is counterbalanced by the light which travels along with us even in the midst of darkness, and it is this which seems to match most closely his musical purposes.
Why then does the story of the spectral meeting on the Road to Emmaus remain so resonant at Easter, for believers and non-believers alike? I must agree with the biblical scholar R. W. L. Moberly who places discernment or understanding of the Christian message of salvation at the heart of its appeal. In this way it is analogous to the parables earlier in the Gospels, representing not so much an argument as a call for recognition. The Catholic writer Father Alfred McBride notes how the Emmaus story shows the developing awareness of two disciples, as they pass from despair over Christ's death to faith in the significance of his resurrection. As such the story represents the journey taken by any individual from doubt to belief, from factual understanding to transcendental meaning. However, it is often overlooked that the story also hinges on an act of caritas or caring. The two disciples only experience their revelation over supper because they have urged the stranger to stay with them and join them in food and companionship. The Belgian New Testament scholar and Jesuit Jan Lambrecht has argued that it is the offer of hospitality by the Emmaus companions that is crucial, allowing them to transcend not only their sadness and lack of belief but also their self-concern. The idea of a journey still offers us one of the most powerful metaphors for life, and there are for all of us moments of mystery and of recognition along the way. Perhaps it is by being good companions on the road that we can open ourselves up to experiences of revelation, and to the making of new meanings?