“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Lk. 24:31).
It’s amazing how a familiar gesture, or an intonation of voice, or even a characteristic phrase, can bring someone back to mind. The gesture or phrase is so evocative that the person seems to be right in front of us. They say that our sense of smell is the most powerful one when it comes to remembering, but almost anything can act as a trigger. St. Augustine called the memory “a vast, immeasurable sanctuary” with “prodigious power” (Conf. IX.8), and I think that’s right. It’s a storehouse with hidden depths. Sometimes the person or event we are recalling is distant in time and space, buried deep indeed, yet in spite of this through the power of memory clearly present in our mind’s eye.
In our Gospel today, it is a customary action that causes the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to recognize that the person who has been traveling with them is Jesus himself. While walking, the unknown stranger has been discussing events in Jerusalem: not only Jesus’ crucifixion but also the rumor that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive. Yet, as our Gospel says, the two disciples do not recognize him.
It’s only when they break their journey for dinner that his identity is revealed. Even though they have been talking about him, they don’t see him! “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” (Lk. 24:30-31). It’s in the characteristic context of the meal, and the familiar words of the blessing, and the evocative gesture of blessing, that the disciples come to recognize Jesus.
Consider the different times the disciples shared meals with Jesus; times when he presided at table with them. The Gospel of Luke, which also contains the Emmaus story, gives us a couple of occasions in particular. The first is the feeding of the five thousand. “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to his disciples…” (Lk. 9:16). Then again, on the night before his betrayal and death, at the last supper, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Lk. 22:19).
The meal on the road to Emmaus is the same sort of event. The disciples recognize Jesus in the giving of thanks and the breaking of bread: actions they have shared with him many times before. It’s the familiar words and gestures, part of the pattern of past experience, that makes the connection. The man that they have been traveling and talking with is, in fact, the Lord himself.
But note the difference between this experience of the risen Lord, and the power of memory invoked at the beginning of this sermon. A gesture or word can bring a person to mind, but what happens on the road to Emmaus is more than a mere reminder of Jesus. The disciples aren’t just remembering: they are encountering the risen Lord. Memory helps them make the connection, but they are not conjuring up a phantom, or just evoking a pleasant memory. They are in the presence of the man himself, raised from the dead.
Our celebration of the Eucharist this morning is part of the same pattern that we see with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, the last supper, and the dinner on the road. For the Gospel writer Luke, “the breaking of the bread” is a term for the early Christian Eucharist, telescoped back into those earlier meals. Here today we encounter the risen Lord, not in his resurrection body but sacramentally, through the sign of his body and blood. Jesus is alive, not dead, a “present tense” person; and is really present in our midst, to be recognized and encountered.
The encounter is meant to be transformative. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32). Our hearts are meant to burn within us this morning as well, as we encounter him at St. Bartholomew’s Church, as we renew our baptismal vows and celebrate the Eucharist. What will Jesus do with those hearts of love that have been enkindled here today? We’re not engaged in tricks of memory this morning, but we are encountering the living Lord, made known to us in the breaking of the bread.