Most of us are aware of the popular “Footprints” poem, in which a person looks back along the beach and sees a couple of sets of footprints, and asks God, “Whose are the second set of footprints?” and God replies, “Those are mine, my child”. When the person looks back and sees that for the more difficult sections of the walk, there is only one set of footprints, they ask God, “Why weren’t you there with me during the more difficult sections?” God replies, “I carried you in my arms during those sections, my child”. It’s sappy, for sure, but it raises an interesting spiritual truth – often, we are unable to recognize the actions and presence of God while they are happening, and can only see them when we look back over our lives.
In today’s gospel, we have a similar situation. The disciples are scattered and in chaos. For three years, they had been following Jesus, whom many had thought to be the Messiah, and then their hopes were dashed when he was arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. But after a few days, several of the women who followed him claimed to have seen him alive, and then others went and found an empty tomb where he was buried. Cleopas and another disciple were on the road to Emmaus discussing all of this, when a stranger joined them, who seemed to be the only person in
Then, as they turned aside at Emmaus, he began to leave them, but they persuaded him to turn aside and share a meal with them. And then, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them – and suddenly, their eyes were opened and they recognized him as Christ, and then he left them. Like the person in the Footprints poem, they were only able to perceive his presence as they looked back and remembered how their hearts had burned as he explained the scriptures to them, and how they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
We are presented in this reading with at least three ways in which Christ comes to us. First, rather implicitly in this passage, he comes to us when we are gathered as a Christian community. The two disciples were together talking about Christ, and he joined them, and was present with them in the discussions of the scriptures. Of course, it is good for us to read the Bible alone, and we will be blessed by this practice if we engage in it regularly, but scripture is the church's treasure, and it is in our gathering together to read it, to hear it expounded through preaching, and to meditate on it that it will bear the most fruit. In addition to being present in our common life and in the scriptures, Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread – the Eucharist.
But like the disciples, we may not always be conscious of Christ’s presence in these three means of grace, or in others. Life in community is difficult at times. We may find the scriptures hard to engage. And we are not going to have a mystically transcendent experience every time we receive Communion. But if we engage these spiritual practices over time, we will be able to look back, and realize that our hearts burned within us, that Christ was known to us in the breaking of the bread, and that through the difficulties of life, Christ carried us in his arms. As we continue in the Easter season, may we deepen our faithfulness to these practices.
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. (BCP)