In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion reflects on the sudden death of her husband and daughter. In deceptively simple prose, she describes how death haunts her daily life, and how it turns the most insignificant acts into significant occasions of pain.
Here is an excerpt:
The voice on the answering machine is still John's. The fact that it was his in the first place was arbitrary, having to do with who was around on the day the answering machine last needed programming, but if I needed to retape it now I would do so with a sense of betrayal. One day when I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of his dictionary that he had always left open on the table by his desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking?
In her book, Didion shares the rawness of her grief. Her intense feelings of absence, of a void in the very fabric of life. The intense longing for her husband to return. The power of her memory--the joy memory brings, the regret memory brings. The almost ceaseless second-guessing of her memory, which pesters her constantly with questions: Could I have? Should I have? Why didn't I? Why did I? Did I at all? Her need to be alone. Her need to be with other people. Her need to let go of her husband and daughter. Her fear of letting go.
Perhaps Didion's work reveals something of the complex, complicated emotional state of our two travelers to Emmaus this morning. They did not lose a child or a spouse to death, but death has nevertheless intruded into their lives, and the two men are suffering a great loss. They are in obvious emotional turmoil. Beset by grief and sadness, perhaps some guilt. They are arguing among themselves. Maybe each has a different memory of Jesus, a different version of the events that led to his execution, a different theory as to why the authorities killed him and who stole his body.
At any rate, they are leaving Jerusalem, probably thinking, "what a lousy Passover this year--ruined by the execution of Jesus, the guy we thought was the messiah. Let's get out of this God-forsaken city. There's nothing in Jerusalem but corruption, death, and bad memories. Let's hit the road to Emmaus."
The road to Emmaus.
Frederick Buechner writes that the road to Emmaus is not so much a road that brings people from here to there as it is a state of mind. The road to Emmaus is:
the place that we go in order to escape--a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, "Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway"...Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that (people) have had--ideas about love, freedom and justice--have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish (people) for selfish ends.
Taken together, Joan Didion and Frederick Buechner remind us that death, loss, and profound disappointment are painful and difficult realities, and that one of the ways we cope with them, or perhaps don't cope with them, is to head down the road to Emmaus.
The road to Emmaus is a powerful metaphor for those not terribly constructive things we do when grief, depression, loneliness, and hopelessness intrude on our lives. It is how we try to escape and run away from our sadness, anger, and frustration.
Think of Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, coming home after another red letter day at the Bailey Building and Loan. Grabbing the banister on the stairway, having it come off in his hands, and yelling in frustration, "why do we have to live in this drafty old house anyway, and why do we have to have all these kids?" Running off to get drunk in Mancini's bar. Getting in a fight with the husband of ZuZu's teacher. And then standing on the edge of the bridge ready to jump. George Bailey, at the end of his rope, trying to escape, on the road to Emmaus.
We all travel down the road to Emmaus, in some way, shape, or form, throughout the course of our lives. Because of personality, disposition, life circumstances, the amount of suffering we have had to endure, the coping mechanisms we have developed, some of us travel the road to Emmaus more often than others do. But it is the rare person indeed who can say, I have never traveled down the road to Emmaus. In fact, never traveling down the road to Emmaus may be indicative of a life not really lived.
If the road to Emmaus is a metaphor for those less than constructive things we do when feeling down, then the road to Jerusalem is the counter metaphor. The road to Jerusalem is a metaphor for the joy-filled life, or the life radically transformed from being down to being uplifted, or the life that has discovered more constructive ways of dealing with life's inevitable difficulties and suffering.
In fact, the road to Emmaus and the road to Jerusalem are the same road. If you turn around on the road to Emmaus, you suddenly find yourself on the road to Jerusalem.
That's the road taken by our two travelers once they realize they have just encountered the living Christ. After sharing their grief with the stranger, hear him retell the Biblical drama, extend hospitality to him, and then break bread with him, their eyes open and they recognize the living Christ. They shake the dust of Emmaus off their feet and set out on the road to Jerusalem, their suffering turned into joy. Same road, opposite direction.
As a metaphor, the road to Jerusalem is the ultimate Easter message. Those of us who are stumbling down the road to Emmaus dragging our spirits turn around and soar back to Jerusalem on eagle's wings. The risen Christ turns our despair into joy, our hopelessness into hopefulness, our doubt into faith, our death into new life.
These words make for great liturgy, a great "Call to Worship," great bulletin art, a great sound-bite for the church. But I often hesitate to use them because they can sound so trite, like a cliché, almost meaningless.
We know these words tap into our deepest spiritual longings, and we know that in real life it can happen--people can experience sudden, radical, thoroughgoing transformations of their heart, mind, body, and soul. Like our two travelers, folks can be down and depressed in the morning and kicking their heels with joy in the afternoon. People who feel dead to the world can be suddenly resurrected back to life.
But we also know that in the real world, these sudden radical transformations don't happen all too often, and that the Easter message of turning despair into joy, hopelessness into hope, and death into life runs the risk of sounding like a string of empty platitudes. We know that in the real world, life is often more complicated, and our experiences more complex.
I suspect that few of us find ourselves traveling exclusively down the road to Emmaus or up the road to Jerusalem. Few of us live lives of total pain and escapism, or total joy and fulfillment. Rather, I suspect many of us live our lives simultaneously on both roads. Many of us experience tension between the road to Emmaus and the road to Jerusalem.
Speaking for myself, on any given day I can identify parts of myself that are Emmaus-bound and parts of myself that are Jerusalem-bound. On any given day, I can say, I am uplifted by this and brought down by that. Spiritually dead here and spiritually alive there. Here is how I am trying to escape from those parts of life that I want to avoid, and here is how I am engaging those parts of life that make me feel most alive.
I think that a big part of our spiritual development, a big part of our growth in spiritual maturity, is discovering those things that bring us down and those things that uplift us. Becoming more conscious of our escapist tendencies and habits, and becoming more knowledgeable of the practices that we can develop to help us deal more constructively with life's inevitable difficulties. Discovering how to orient our lives more towards Jerusalem and less towards Emmaus.
And that is really the question many of us face: In the complicated complexity of our lives, with so many ups and downs, so many things pushing and pulling us, so many things to celebrate and grieve, and so many paths upon which to escape life's difficulties, how do we orient our lives more towards Jerusalem and less towards Emmaus? And how do we re-orient those parts of our lives that are Emmaus bound towards Jerusalem?
Today's gospel story can perhaps shed a bit of light on these questions. I'd like to highlight three things that happen in this story that may be helpful to consider.
The two travelers unload their burdens to someone who will listen.
The person who listens helps them put things in perspective.
The travelers invite their new friend to break bread and share fellowship.
First off, notice how our two Emmaus-bound travelers open up to Jesus. At first, they are arguing amongst themselves, but then they take the opportunity Jesus presents them to unload their burdens on him. They pour out their grief. They get it out of their system. They don't clam up and say, "We don't want to talk about it." They talk about it. This is easier for some of us than others, but talking about it--releasing our burdens to someone who is willing to listen--is a healthy thing. Holding everything in, keeping it bottled up inside, can send us right down that road to Emmaus. Releasing it can put us on the road to Jerusalem.
Second. Jesus' response may appear a bit unnerving. Jesus may not seem to be the most sympathetic guy in the world. He doesn't say, "Ahh, poor guys. I really feel sorry for you. What a terrible thing you have suffered, no wonder you're escaping down the road to Emmaus. You deserve to waddle in your sorrows."
Jesus doesn't do that. Instead, he offers more of a tough love reality check, essentially saying, "Wait a second. Snap out of it. Quit feeling sorry for yourselves. Take another look. Re-evaluate where you are. Take another look at what just happened, and what you're doing, and what you could be doing."
Then Jesus shares with them the story from scripture. He doesn't lift up a few inspirational passages or pull out a few proof texts to make them feel better. He lays out the entire Biblical drama as it unfolds through time. He paints the big picture, and he orients himself and them within the big picture, within the big story.
Now how does that help?
Alisdair McIntyre has written: "I cannot answer the question, 'what must I do?' until I can answer the prior question, 'to which story do I belong?'"
And that's the key. I think it helps us immensely on our journey through life if we can answer the question: "To which story do I belong?" It helps us immensely if we can orient our lives in a bigger story. If we can say, "This is what I shall do because this is the story in which I am a character, and this is my role in the unfolding drama in which I am a participant."
Being part of a bigger story gives our lives direction, purpose, and value. It helps sustain us and it keeps us oriented in a positive direction, especially when we encounter difficulties. So much escapist behavior occurs when people do not see themselves as a meaningful participant in something bigger than themselves, something to which they can dedicate their lives, something that will keep them on course. Jesus orients the travelers within in the bigger story--from Abraham to Moses to the prophets. Jesus orients them toward Jerusalem. As contemporary Christians, we orient our lives within that very same story.
Third. After conversing with Jesus all day, the travelers extend hospitality to him. They invite Jesus to spend more time with them, to sit down at the table and break bread, to share fellowship, to become a bit more intimate. They open up and invite Jesus deeper into their lives.
Showing hospitality. Welcoming the stranger. Inviting new people into our lives. Sharing what we have with them. Accepting what they bring with them. Getting to know people at deeper levels. Becoming true friends. Forming ties that bind--ties of love, care, and compassion.
Life is all about relationships. We must pay very close attention to the people we have known forever, and we must pay very close attention to the new people who show up in our lives. They are all a part of our story, and we are a part of their story, and together we are all a pat of the big story. We must tend to our relationships with great care, taking none of them for granted. The quality of our relationships plays a huge role in the degree to which we are Emmaus bound or Jerusalem bound.
Relationships that are shallow, insincere, lacking in trust, conflict-ridden, and joyless are Emmaus bound. Relationships that are deep, sincere, based on trust, harmonious, and filled with joy are Jerusalem bound.
I believe that being simultaneously Emmaus bound and Jerusalem bound is a constant tension in our lives. I hope and pray that as a church, we can help one another orient our lives more toward Jerusalem. I hope and pray that we can truly share our burdens with one another, orient our lives together in the bigger story to which we all belong, and tend to our relationships here with great care. In doing so, I believe we encounter the living Christ, and we turn the church's Easter message from a worn-out cliché into a reality.
Frederick Buechner wrote that going to church on Sunday can be one of the ways people travel the road to Emmaus. Church can be an escape. What a horrid thought. May we never run from the world. May we help the world encounter the living Christ and the meaning of Easter right here.