Rummaging through my desk recently I found a brochure I received in the mail a while back inviting me to a seminar on “The Fascinating World of the Apocalypse!”
On the brochure’s cover is a color picture of Jesus appearing in the heavens on a horse, followed by an army of angels, also on horseback.
On the earth below, people run on a devastated, burning street, looking heavenward in horror.
The scene depicted on the brochure is graphic, detailed and bold. There is no doubt what is going on here. Even the most biblically illiterate person would recognize that this is a picture of Jesus returning to earth in conquering glory.
As I sat at my desk looking at this troubling illustration, I could not help but compare its picture of the instantly identifiable, triumphant, warrior-like risen Christ with the picture of the risen Christ we see in today’s gospel.
It is Sunday evening, three days after the crucifixion, and two followers of Jesus are sadly, slowly making their way from Jerusalem to their home village of Emmaus, about seven miles away.
With downcast heads and heavy hearts, they discuss all the horrible events that have happened in the last few days – Jesus has been arrested and executed, and now there are reports that his body is missing from the tomb.
Cleopas and his friend are grief-stricken and dejected. But when a stranger joins them on the dusty road they are kind to him, and engage him in conversation. They are shocked that this stranger seems to be ignorant of all that has taken place in Jerusalem, and they tell him what has happened.
“We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel,” they tell the stranger.
What sad words – “we had hoped.”
Now they are living with the horrible despair of hope in the past tense, hope that has died along with Jesus. Now they are dejectedly going home to a life without Jesus, a life without hope.
That is when the quiet stranger explodes. “How foolish you are!” he tells the travelers. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
And then this man who initially seemed so ignorant proceeds to interpret everything Moses and the prophets had said about the Messiah.
This amazing scripture lesson goes on the entire journey. When they finally reach Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend urge the stranger to stay and join them for dinner, an act of kindness and hospitality to one traveling alone.
When they sit down to eat, the guest suddenly acts as host. He takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them.
In that instant, the travelers suddenly realize who the stranger is. And in the moment of recognition, Jesus is gone.
The dilemma of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus is the same dilemma facing all of us who live after the crucifixion and resurrection.
How do we live as Christians in a post-Easter world? How and where do we encounter the risen Christ? And how will we recognize the risen Christ when we do meet him?
Many Christians envision an encounter with the risen Christ as a cataclysmic, earthshaking event. Maybe not as graphic and triumphant as the brochure showing Jesus riding in from heaven on a white stallion escorted by an army of angels, but definitely a momentous occasion.
That’s what Cleopas and his friend seemed to have expected from the one they had hoped was their savior. They are disappointed because Jesus apparently has turned out to be an ordinary human being after all.
When he was nailed to the cross, he bled and died just like anyone else. Where is the glory, the triumph, the redemption in that?
It is true that God does at times act in dramatic and cataclysmic ways. God speaks to Moses from a burning bush; God sends a rash of dramatic plagues to the people of Egypt; God parts the Red Sea for the fleeing people of Israel.
But those dramatic moments, the kind from which Charlton Heston movies are made, are the exceptions, not the rule.
More often, God is revealed to us in less dramatic, mundane, ordinary ways – in a rainbow, in visits from strangers, in the birth of a baby.
Or as one of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, says, “We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places and not in spectacular events, such as the coming of a comet.”
In fact, it is in the most ordinary of events that the travelers finally recognize the stranger – in the sharing of a meal, in the breaking of bread. In that ordinary moment they suddenly realize that the risen Christ has been with them all along.
Theologian Nicholas Lash comments that the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus can be a parable for all who want to know how Christ is still present with us almost 2,000 years after his death.
“Those disciples, like the rest of us, had some difficulty in reading their history,” he says, “and the context of recognition, the occasion on which things began to make sense was not some religious event in a sacred space, but an act of human hospitality.”
That same idea is expressed at the end of J.D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey in a telephone conversation between Franny Glass and her brother Zooey. When they were young, the two siblings, along with their older brother Seymour, had starred on a radio show called It’s a Wise Child.
* * *
“I remember about the fifth time I ever went on Wise Child,” Zooey says to his sister. “I started complaining one night before the broadcast. Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door.
“I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just darn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them. I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat.
“He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, so I did it.
“He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again – all the years you and I were on the program together.
“This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning til night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and – I don’t know.
“Anyway, it seemed clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”
Franny was standing. She had taken her hand away from her face to hold the phone with two hands. “He told me, too,” she said into the phone. “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady once.
“I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very – you know – very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too though, and she had the radio going full blast all day! Mine did, too!”
“Yes. Yes,” Zooey replied. “All right. Let me tell you something now, buddy…Are you listening?
“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a Broadway theater, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sun-burned looking audience you can imagine.
“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret. Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady…There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know the secret yet?
“And don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know what that Fat Lady really is? Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ himself. Christ himself, buddy.”
* * *
Two weeks ago with great joy and festiveness we celebrated God’s most dramatic moment – Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The special music, the abundance of flowers, the shouts of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” all reminded us that an extraordinary event had occurred.
But after the triumphant joy of that morning fades, we move through the season of Easter into Pentecost, into that long season the church appropriately calls “ordinary time.” And it is in ordinary time and ordinary places that we will find the risen Christ.
We find him when we are on the road – when hope seems lost, when we are tired, dejected, grieving, when we are headed home in defeat.
We find him in the company of friends, in kindness to a stranger, in the study of scripture, in the intimacy of a meal.
In the mundane, routine moments of our lives, in moments of joy and sadness, sometimes at the moment when we feel most separated from God, the risen Christ is there with us.
Sometimes, as with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, we may be in the presence of Christ and not even recognize it at the time.
Our challenge is to learn to recognize him in the mundane routines of our lives, to find Easter in the ordinary, to realize that the stranger next to us may indeed be the Lord.
“Don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know what that Fat Lady really is? Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ himself, Christ himself, buddy.”