Journey to Emmaus, Recognizing Jesus

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by Jeanne Heiberg

One of the things I love about the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) is the dramatic change in the feelings of Jesus’ disciples. The two on the road to Emmaus meet a stranger who walks and talks with them. Even before they realize it is Jesus, they change from feeling grief to joy. Their experience helps me keep in mind that Jesus is present even when I’m not aware of him.

A book I read on writing claimed that all stories can be boiled down to one of two plots: 1) a person or persons go on a journey, or 2) someone new comes to town. The Emmaus story has both. The disciples are on a journey to Emmaus, and someone new comes along. Understanding this story helps us enjoy better plots for our own lives, ones that ends in joy.

The Journey of Life

Most of us like a story with a happy ending, and the Emmaus story has one. The disciples are grieving because the man they loved and in whom they placed hope, faith, and trust has been killed. They are troubled and so are traveling to a town near Jerusalem, perhaps their home or the home of friends. On our own journey of life, we each have a place—physical, mental, and/or emotional—where we want to go when we’re troubled.

While en route, the two disciples encounter Jesus and he teaches them. He offers deeper meaning to all they have experienced. He explains how these experiences have a higher purpose, are foretold in Scripture, and will lead to the greatest good.

On our journey of life, all our experiences have meaning and purpose as well. We learn from our experiences and they lead us to growth, goodness, and joy. We learn from difficulties, heartaches, and losses when we reflect on them in the company of Jesus. But first we have to recognize Jesus’ presence. We have to encounter Jesus.

Encountering Jesus

The Emmaus story is about encountering. In 1978, Paulist Press published my book titled Journey to Emmaus, Recognizing the Lord (now out of print). Interested in the idea of encounter, I explained that the disciples were too wrapped up in their own sorrows and concerns to be aware of who the stranger was.

Don’t we tend to do the same—to get so wrapped up in our own concerns and feelings and miss how and where and in whom Jesus is with us? Like the disciples, we need time for our awareness to grow. We need to learn to recognize Jesus, to have many encounters with him throughout our lives. He disappears from our awareness, then suddenly surprises us with fresh meetings. It takes time, life experiences, and faith to know that Jesus is close even when we cannot sense him.

Recognizing Jesus

At Mass we recognize Jesus. Scripture readings, the sermon, and our community prayers and songs lift our minds and hearts to God. In the Eucharist, Jesus is present.

But even then, we can miss the moment because we might be thinking about dinner, company coming, the big game, or a favorite activity. How much more difficult it is to recognize Jesus during a busy week involving family, school, and work. No wonder Jesus often takes us by surprise! It’s hard to remember: Jesus is always with us, always available.

Yet, we are not always present to and focused on Jesus. Living in a physical body in a material world, we have a lot to take care of. When Jesus took bread and wine and said “This is my body and this is my blood,” he gave us a focus—a visible sign— to make us aware that he is always with us, loving us, ready to help. To recognize his presence in the chaos of life, we need to bring our best focus on Jesus’ presence at Mass and in daily moments of prayer and silence.

The disciples going to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus until they invite him to stay with him and they break bread together. It is in the breaking of the bread that they recognize their beloved friend and teacher.

The disciples’ experience helps us realize that Jesus is always with us. We often will find him when we least expect him, and not even recognize him.

This story also helps us remember that we encounter Jesus consciously and with greater awareness when we break bread with others at Mass and carry that awareness with us into our daily lives.

Jesus as Catechist

As catechists, we want to help our students develop a personal relationship, a living conversation, an ongoing encounter with Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, and to recognize Jesus’ presence in others. Recognizing Jesus is key. In the Emmaus story, Jesus shows us how to develop these personal relationships.

In Journey to Emmaus, Recognizing the Lord, I emphasize four important catechetical methods that Jesus—the Master Catechist—demonstrates.

1. Ask questions. Get to know students, to find out what they think and feel. Be interested in them. Going toward Emmaus, Jesus does not immediately reveal his presence, saying “Here I am.” He first focuses on the disciples. He asks questions to find out about what they are thinking and feeling. He is interested in them. The greatest teacher of all—Jesus—spent time listening to his students.

2. Begin where students are, then relate Scripture to their experiences. Students’ awareness, knowledge, and love of God expand from where they are now. After listening to his disciples, Jesus begins to teach, starting with the Hebrew Scriptures. He relates these to the disciples’ experiences and gradually expands their awareness. Jesus did not offer abstract theology; rather, he told stories and parables based on his listeners’ experiences.

3. Build kind and caring relationships in the classroom that expand to the wider community. As understanding expanded, the disciples find “our hearts burning within us.” They invite the stranger—Jesus—to “stay with us.” Jesus fosters loving relationships between people and encourages fellowship and community.

4. Give students opportunities to express what they learn and to interact with you and one another in creative ways. When Jesus leads the disciples into an action—the breaking of bread—they recognize him. Ideas become personal and alive when people do things together, such as celebrating Mass. This leads to joy and a desire to share good news. The disciples run back to Jerusalem to tell others.

Listening and becoming aware of students’ feelings helps them settle down and listen to you. Try the thumb vote game at the beginning of class to help this happen (see “Say to the Children”).

Say to the Children

Think about how you are feeling today. If you feel happy and excited, give your day a thumbs-up (demonstrate a thumbs-up gesture). If you feel sad and disappointed, give your day a thumbs-down (demonstrate a thumbs-down gesture).

If you feel really really happy and excited, give your day a great thumbs-up (demonstrate an exaggerated thumbs-up gesture). If you feel really really sad and disappointed, give your day a great big thumbs-down (demonstrate an exaggerated thumbs-down gesture; be ready for laughter).

Now think about how the things you do during the day might make you feel happy and excited or sad and disappointed. Think about getting clean and dressed in the morning, brushing your teeth, eating, getting to school, paying attention to the teacher, doing your studies, spending time with friends, and helping others. All these are good, but they can keep our focus on us, our thumbs-up or thumbs-down feelings. We need help to again become aware of Jesus, to recognize the Lord. To se how this helped Jesus’ disciples go from a thumbs-way-down to a thumbs-way-up day, let’s listen to this story from St. Luke.

Read Luke 24:13-35, then explain:

It was the presence of Jesus that brought these disciples joy. Jesus joined them on their journey and their hearts were “burning within” when he talked to them along the way. And then they recognized him in the breaking of the bread and were so excited and full of joy that they dashed off to share the news of the Risen Jesus with others.

Jesus wants to be present to us on our journey of life, to bring us into his joy and happiness. This story about the disciples on the way to Emmaus helps us grow in the realization that he is with us always. We will often find him when we least expect him, and we may not even recognize him. He is present to us in our deepest selves, in other people, in all the situations of life, and in a very special way at Mass. He made a promise when he said, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
He keeps that promise.

May 8 is the Third Sunday of Easter. The Gospel you will hear proclaimed at Mass that day tells the Emmaus story. Remember what we’ve talked about today. Journey with the disciples, listen to Jesus as he talks to the two disciples, and then see if you can recognize Jesus at Mass and in the week that follows.

ACTIVITY: Recognizing Jesus Craft

* plain paper, construction paper (in a wide variety of colors; be sure to include flesh-colors), origami
* swatches of color from magazines
* scraps of material
* crayons, markers, colored pencils
* glue

For younger children: Have the children draw the disciples and Jesus on the road to Emmaus or Jesus breaking the bread or just the bread itself. They may also choose to draw themselves receiving Communion at Mass or walking hand in hand with Jesus. Other themes you might use are “times when Jesus surprised me” or “Jesus is with me always.”

For older children: Have the children use origami or construction paper and magazine color swatches to express the lesson of the Emmaus story (or any of the themes mentioned above) in a collage.

For a single scene that brings together the children’s work, arrange the students’ separate items on a large piece of construction paper or poster board.

Recognizing Jesus Prayer

Opening Song
: “Open My Eyes.” Text Mark 8:22-25. Text and music © 1988, 1999, Jesse Manibusan. Published by OCP Publications.

Opening Prayer: Thank you, Jesus, for promising to be with us always. Thank you for opening the eyes of the disciples on the way to Emmaus so that they could recognize your presence and so could grow in understanding Scripture and life.

Open our eyes, Jesus, that we may recognize your presence to us at Mass, in Communion, and in those who gather with us. Help us to recognize your presence in those who teach us, in those who love and care for us, and in every person we meet. Help us find meaning and joy in Scripture and in the events of our lives as we grow in our understanding of God’s ways.
All: Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 54:10 or 49:15 (God’s love will never leave us); Psalm 119:18 (we ask God to open our eyes); Matthew 28:20 (Jesus’ assurance that he is with us always); Luke 24:13-35 (the disciples meet Jesus on the way to Emmaus).

Commentary: Is it hard or easy to recognize the presence of Jesus in ourselves and in others? Most of us get so busy with other things that we forget. What helps you to remember? For some of us, times of happiness, love, and sharing inspire thanks and praise. Some of us become aware of Jesus in times of trouble. We know Jesus is present at Mass, when we sing, listen to Scripture, pray, and receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

We have to learn to recognize Jesus again and again throughout our lives, to realize that he walks with us, that he may seem to disappear from our awareness, and that he may surprise us with fresh encounters. It takes time, life experiences, and faith to know that Jesus is close even when we cannot sense him.

We have made these collages to keep the Emmaus story alive in our awareness and to remember Jesus’ words, “I am always with you.”

Blessing: Bless these works of our hands, O Lord, to remind us that you are always with us. May we recognize you in the breaking of the bread at Mass, receive you gratefully in Communion, and carry your presence and love into our daily lives.

Dismissal: Let us go in peace now, to carry God’s presence and love out into the world and to recognize Jesus, the Son of God, in those we meet. Let us remember to see the good in ourselves and in others. In all things, we give thanks to God.
All: Amen.

Closing Song: “Though the Mountains May Fall.” Text based on Isaiah 54:6-10; 49:15; 40:31-32. Text and music © Daniel L. Schutte and New Dawn Music. Published by OCP Publications.

Jeanne Heiberg is the author of Advent & Christmas Crafts (Paulist Press) and Advent calendars (Creative Communications). She has taught art, writing, creative catechetics, and meditation, and has directed parish catechetical programs. She thanks Father John Moyna, pastor, Bob Desrosiers, faith formation director, and grades 5 and 6 and catechists Kathy Baxter and Colleen Lynch of St. Mary’s Parish, Coxsackie, NY, for participation in Emmaus art expressions.

Copyright 2011, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, March 2011.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 383838703

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