The Emmaus Road
Some years ago, I travelled in a group along the Camino, the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostella. One of the companions was a woman who carried with her a book of poems by the Polish poet Roman Brandstaetter. I happened to sit near Maria one day as she was reading his work and she tried to translate a poem for me but couldn’t find the right words as her own English was limited. As we talked, I began to make suggestions and, throughout the journey, we eventually translated his poems. One sticks in my mind:
“We ran in a panic…. Despair entered our hearts, earth seemed to be in the depths of hell….. We did not recognise your steps, not even as the sand whispered under your feet … We heedless disciples who ran in fear from your empty tomb.”
From Litany in Emmaus by Roman Brandstaetter.
These words seem particularly appropriate as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. Like those disciples Brandstaetter describes, some people initially panicked and then rushed to stock up so much that the shops ran out of essential items that others needed too. Many are in despair and, for some, there have been hellish experiences with others unable to recognise where any hope might be in amidst so much anguish and grief. Rumours abound about the way ahead as the health of the population and the economy create different needs and expectations, causing speculation and confusion about when the restrictions being faced may ease. In the face of all that’s happening, it’s hard in ways great and small: today is the anniversary of my father’s death and usually I would travel to Derbyshire after the service here to be with my mother who is alone and disabled. That’s not possible, and is only a small sacrifice compared with what so many others are enduring, but these perplexing times do mean it’s sometimes challenging to understand what’s happening, how to manage it and where hope could be.
It was the same that first Easter Day. As two companions travel to Emmaus, Cleopas and a unnamed disciple meet someone they don’t recognise on the same road and we’re told that they stand still with their faces downcast as they tell him:
“Jesus of Nazareth was….powerful in word and deed before God and all the people….. and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one…. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body…..” St Luke, 24: 18-23, NIV.
These disciples are clearly sad and crushed by events, understandably seeking the familiar as they try to leave behind the anguish and uncertainty of what has happened in Jerusalem. The person they meet talks with them and explains the scriptures to them but so much do their worries overwhelm them that they still don’t recognise who it is. It’s only when he breaks bread for them in a meal they share that these disciples’ eyes are opened and they see Jesus with them. They realise that what’s happened is not rumour but actually the start of a new way of life, which transforms their sorrow:
“They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them….saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” “St Luke 24: vv 33, 34, NIV.
The word companion derives from com panio, with bread, and it’s as they share what’s happened and the food they have that hope transforms those frightened lives then – and it will do when we seek it during the pandemic too. Those who usually break bread together are often not able to at the moment – but one of the signs of hope during the pandemic is the way that businesses, shops and community organisations have donated food to the NHS and the foodbanks. There have been some supply problems and it’s true that the supermarkets have made a lot of money from the panic buying that’s happened – but there have also been very significant donations to foodbanks and charities. As the numbers of those in need rises with the uncertainty over the economy, the Oswestry and Borders Food Bank has openly acknowledged the generosity of our local supermarkets, shops and volunteers and that can be seen in so many ways across the UK as virtual meals, gatherings and fundraising events are still held via the Internet.
The road ahead is very uncertain for us all – but in the astonishing circumstances in which we find ourselves, Brandstaetter reminds us that those “heedless disciples who ran in fear from the empty tomb” were transformed when their eyes were opened and they could see Jesus with them. Due to Covid-19 and its consequences, we have good reason to fear – but we also have good reason to hope, because the tomb was empty and Jesus risen. Who knows where our road will lead or how long it will take? What we do know is that the love of Jesus, who called himself the Way, can transform our lives too – but as our eyes are opened, we may have to look at life very differently due to the new realities we are beginning to see ahead of us all.
With my prayers,