Emmaus was a city in the Shephelah or “lowland” of Palestine, noted for several historic conquests by the Jews. In 166 BC, it was the site of the victory of Judas over Gorgias, recorded in First Maccabees 4:1-22, where we also find the first Old Testament reference to the resurrection. Earlier, Joshua had defeated the Canaanite league around this region (Joshua 10). It was also the area where Samson’s exploits occurred as well as the scene of David’s duel with Goliath. It’s mostly a residential part of town with limestone foothills that made the area fortified against enemy attacks. Emmaus is the earthly city.
In today’s account of Jesus’ appearance, Luke doesn’t tell us why the two disciples are going to Emmaus or whether they reside there. However, Luke’s reference to the town might point to its relative importance as a hideaway or a place to “cool off” from the confusion in Jerusalem. The two disciples appeared to be leaving behind the ‘spiritual angst’ of Jerusalem with a ‘failed Messianic hope’ in Jesus, an empty tomb, and a hollow echo to the mundane fortifications of the limestone foothills of Emmaus. It was a journey from the spiritual high heaven to a disappointing spiritual lowland. Little did they know that the Lord who gave his people a number of victories near Emmaus was on the way with them to make their depressed hearts burn within them. He will turn their bread of tears into wine of joyful presence, and return them to the beauty of spiritual elation. Hence, they hurriedly left the ‘lowland’ (Emmaus), and returned to the spiritual highlands of Jerusalem with the joyful news of his presence.
Already, in the Lucan community, the Eucharistic assembly was taking shape. Every Eucharistic gathering will, from hence, echo the Emmaus event. It will invoke the inspired words of scripture and offer gifts of bread and wine to the welcome guest of our soul. He will break his journey to be with us at the evening of our lives, when we have grown weary. The Church adapted the words of the two disciples in her prayer: “Mane nobiscum Domine, quoniam advesperascit”—”Stay with us Lord, for the evening falls.” He will break the Bread of Presence and show himself to us. We’ll be filled with joy as we go out to announce him in the spiritual heights. He’ll continue to walk seven days a week with us and our Christian neighbor, as he walked seven miles with Cleopas and his unnamed companion. He already told us that where two or three of us are gathered, he’ll be there with us (Matt 18:20). He’ll speak words that burn within our hearts, until our journey finds us once again at a new Emmaus (another Sunday), where we break bread and experience his Real Presence.
It is easy to notice that the Mass was modeled after the Emmaus journey, with the two parts of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At the outset of the first part, we bring with us our disappointments, our failures, our negligence and contrite heart in the Penitential Rite, as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus told the Lord about their failed hopes. In the Readings of the Day, we listen to him as he draws from scripture a tapestry of God’s salvific mystery realized in him. Every good Homily should make our hearts burn within us. At the Universal Prayer, we invoke him, like the two disciples to stay with his Church, at this evening of life. He becomes the welcome guest of our souls. The second part of Mass starts with Offertory, where we find ourselves – like Cleopas and his friend – offer him bread and wine and gifts from our treasury of his blessings. At Consecration, he takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it. At Holy Communion, he opens our eyes to recognize his presence. Ite Misa Est is a call to carry the joy of the Lord’s presence to others just as two disciples did: to those whose lives are filled with sadness, to the sick in need of his healing, to the unbeliever who sees Christ’s light in us.
Why was he revealed only at the breaking of bread, and not when he spoke to them? Because our faith would not terminate at the Table of the Word. The real presence of the resurrected Christ is perceived only at the Eucharistic Table; that is why the Church calls the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life.