Fr Brendan McConvery, CSsR, has written a really user-friendly manual to help ordinary people explore the Bible in an accessible and non-threatening way.
78pp. Redemptorist Communications and the National Bible Society of Ireland.
Well-known scripture scholar, Fr Brendan McConvery, CSsR, has written a really user-friendly manual to help ordinary people explore the Bible in an accessible and non-threatening way. Here the reader will find the tools to unearth the richness of both the Old and New Testaments, and even to pray with them. The book will be ideal for individuals or groups interested in widening their understanding of scripture.
Brendan McConvery was born in Belfast where his family still lives. He was professed as a Redemptorist in 1965 and was ordained in 1974. He studied scripture at the Biblical Institute, Rome and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. He teaches scripture at the Pontifical University, Maynooth.
CHAPTER THREE: ONE JESUS, FOUR PORTRAITS
Over the years I have been teaching scripture, I have built up a little collection of ‘Jesus films’. They span the products of Hollywood’s Golden Age from The Greatest Story EverTold to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. No two are alike.They are following an old tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. The existence of four Gospels or separate portraits of Jesus may have been something of a mixed blessing for the Early Church. Some people wanted to continue to produce ‘new Gospels,’ Apart from the four known by the names of their original authors – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – there were later Gospels, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas and even the ‘Gospel of Judas’ which caused some excitement when it was discovered a few years ago. All of these so-called ‘Gospels’ are imitations based on the earlier four. On the other hand, there have been proposals to reduce the four to one. A Christian writer of the third century, for instance, produced a skilful blending of all four Gospels into a single narrative. It was popular in many parts of the ancient Christian East. Nevertheless, the Church wisely allowed the four-fold Gospel to stand.
God’s final revelation to humanity is not a set of teachings, no matter how inspiring. It is the story of a person of flesh and blood, Jesus of Nazareth, ‘in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Letter to the Colossians, 1: 19).
In this section, we will attempt to meet Jesus as he is reflected through these four portraits. Each Gospel writer, like a skilled portrait painter, catches some aspect of the subject. Sometimes the same story may be told in very different ways but at the core of each Gospel are the memories that the closest disciples preserved about their teacher.
1. Why four Gospels?
Many of the founders of great world religions wrote down their teaching. Jewish tradition believed that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament (sometimes called the ‘Books of Moses’). Mohamed wrote the Qu’ran. Jesus neither wrote down his teaching nor commanded his disciples to write it down. For more than thirty years after his death, his followers passed on ‘The Good News’ by word of mouth. Our word ‘Gospel’ comes from the Old English word for good news, ‘goode spell:
The Good News Jesus preached was that the Kingdom of God was finally close at hand and starting to break into human life. In the eyes of his disciples, that Good News was bound up with who Jesus was and what he did. He was the Son of God. He spoke with a new kind of authority. He brought healing and reconciliation into a divided world. Above all, that Good News did not end with his death. If anything, his shameful and painful death on the cross added an even deeper truth to what he taught. God proved him right by raising him from the dead, letting him be seen as living by those who had all but lost faith in him, and in a mysterious way, he continued to be with them through his Word and the Breaking of Bread.
If you think about it, you probably received the story of Jesus by word of mouth long before you ever opened a bible. If you are typical of most cradle Catholics, you got it when your parents brought you to the crib at Christmas or when someone like your grandmother told you the story of the death of Jesus from the fourteen Stations of the Cross on the wall of the church. Many people kept adding to that story of faith — teachers, priests, leaders of youth groups. Even if you are not a particularly religious person and just want to read the bible because you are curious, you still probably know a good deal of it because you know the story.
The first of the four Gospels to be written is the second one in the collection, the Gospel according to Mark. It is also the shortest. We do not know for certain when it was written or who wrote it or where it was written. It was probably written shortly before the year 70 after Christ by a Christian disciple, called Mark, who may have been an associate of St Peter. We can be fairly certain about the date because that was the year in which the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans and there are some hints in the Gospel of the savage war that immediately preceded that event. We will be reading the Gospel of Mark in its entirety later, so we will say relatively little about his Gospel here.
Within about ten or fifteen years another Gospel appeared, the one we call Matthew. It was a great deal longer. Matthew concentrates more on the teaching of Jesus than Mark did. He probably drew on additional sayings and teachings of Jesus that were still familiar to the Christians of his own time. Matthew was probably writing for a Christian audience that lived fairly close to a Jewish community that was beginning to gather itself together again to face a new and uncertain future without a holy city and temple. Matthew’s community was mixed. Many of its members were Jewish by birth and upbringing. Others were converts who had no claim to Jewish heritage (‘Gentiles: as they were called disparagingly by Jews). Relations between Matthew’s church and what we might call ‘the synagogue across the street’ were probably far from easy. The Jews resented the free approach to the Law of Matthew’s community and their claim that ‘Gentiles’ were entitled to a claim on God’s promises to Israel. The Christians regarded the Jews as the successors of the narrow-minded Pharisees who had proved such opponents of Jesus during his life time.
Not long after Matthew, another early Christian writer, Luke, produced his Gospel. He was writing for an even more different audience. They were for the most part converts from paganism in the cities of the Roman Empire. Their knowledge of things Jewish was scant. Luke’s challenge was to provide an image of Jesus that would depict him as an ideal human being, open to Jews, Gentiles, men, women, thoughtful people of a certain culture and education, as well as the slaves and the people at the bottom of the social pyramid who were attracted by the new faith. Like Matthew, Luke followed the outline of the story of Jesus first used by Mark. He also took over much of Matthew’s rich collection of Jesus’ teachings. Because they follow the same outline of the story (synopsis), the first three Gospels are called the ‘Synoptics’.
Our fourth Gospel, John, is different. Rather than following the same outline as the other three, John chose to tell the story of Jesus differently, concentrating almost exclusively, for instance, on Jesus’ preaching in the Jerusalem area. John also has chosen to focus on a relatively brief number of stories about Jesus but he develops many of them at quite considerable length. John knew that his limited number of stories would not cover everything known about Jesus but he hoped that by a more concentrated look at a few signs, as he calls them, his readers would be drawn into the depths. Towards the end of his Gospel he writes: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name: (John 20:30-31)
II. Seven scenes from the life of Jesus
In this section, we will read seven scenes from the life of Jesus. Sometimes the reading for one scene will draw on more than one Gospel. This will help us to understand a little more clearly how each of the Gospel writers wanted to depict that particular scene. Remember, they were writing the story of Jesus for different audiences and each wanted to add his own particular colour to the scene.
1. How it began: Baptism and Temptation. Read Mark 1: 1-15 and Matthew 3:1-17 and 4:1-13
Mark’s account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus is relatively short. A young carpenter from Galilee (Luke will tell us he was about thirty years old) is attracted by the rousing preaching of John the Baptist who has appeared by the River Jordan calling on people to repent for something tremendous is about to happen. The Kingdom of God is close at hand, he says, and its preacher is near. John is a fearsome character, clothed in animal skins and living off the sparse produce of the desert. He invites his hearers to allow themselves to be immersed in the river as a sign of their repentance. The moment of baptism has a shattering effect on Jesus. As he emerges spluttering from the water, he has a vision in which the heavens appear to open above him and he hears a voice calling him the Beloved Son of God. So earth-shattering is this vision that the only way Jesus can grasp its meaning is by going off alone into the wilderness. In the bible, the desert or wilderness is a place where people learn what God has in store for them. Mark tells us little about that time in the desert beyond noting that it lasted forty days, during which Jesus fasted and was tempted.
Matthew’s account of the baptism and time in the desert has a number of differences. Mark saw the baptism as the moment in which Jesus was revealed as the Son of God. Matthew began his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ birth in which he had been declared Son of God even before he was born. Matthew goes into greater detail about the preaching of John. He also tells us that John saw in this young man who presented himself for baptism the one who could offer a real baptism, not with water but with the Spirit of God. Since Jesus does not need his symbolic water-dipping, John is reluctant to baptise him but is persuaded by Jesus himself to do so. Matthew also describes three temptations of Jesus in detail. They are to change stones into bread, to show that he is Son of God by a spectacular display of power, and to gain worldly power by giving his allegiance to the devil.
2. Jesus’ programme. Read Luke 4: 14-32
How did Jesus understand the call he received at baptism and over which he struggled for forty days in the desert? He would have been familiar with the stories of the call of the great prophets of the past to speak God’s word to their fellow Israelites (see the call-stories of Isaiah and Jeremiah in Chapter 7, ‘Justice and Politics: Reading the Prophets’). For him, the vision he had received at the river was a call like this. Matthew summarised the preaching of Jesus in one sentence: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Matthew 3:15). Luke develops it into a scene in which Jesus preaches to the people of his home town, Nazareth.
The sermon takes place during the Sabbath meeting for worship.The high point of the service was a lengthy reading from the Law. It was followed by a shorter reading from the prophets. It was an honour for a member of the congregation to be called to do one of the synagogue readings. It is likely that the leader of the service wished to honour this young man who was making a name for himself as a preacher by inviting him to take the second reading. He is handed the Book of Isaiah (written on a scroll rather than in a modern type of book). Jesus begins by doing something unusual. He chooses not to read the reading of the day, but unrolls the scroll until he finds what he is looking for near the end of the book. Actually, it is two short passages: Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6. In it, the prophet describes how the Spirit of God has come upon him and sent him on a mission. The mission comprises five parts: (1) bringing good news to the poor, (2) proclaiming release to captives; (3) recovery of sight to the blind; (4) letting the oppressed go free; and (5) proclaiming the jubilee year of the Lord’s favour. The jubilee was normally celebrated every fifty years. During this time debts were remitted, the land was rested and people were allowed to reclaim their inheritance. When he has finished, Jesus begins to preach from this text. It is not a dead letter of the past, it is something that is being fulfilled as they listen, for he is the Servant of the Lord that Isaiah promised.
The first reaction of the congregation to the local boy is favourable. It soon turns to shock and horror as he spells out how the people of Israel in the past did not respond to the message of the prophets sent to them. It ends with an attempt on his life as they hustle him out of the synagogue, intending to throw him over the cliff on which the town is built.
Although the audience reject the prophet and his message, the five tasks laid on the servant will form the backbone of Jesus’ mission. The year or so he will preach will be a time of divine favour that will touch on all five tasks of the Servant-Messiah. The message will be directed especially at the rural poor of Galilee. They will be called into a new freedom as God’s sons and daughters. Some will have their bodily sight restored but many more will be given new spiritual sight. Those oppressed by disease, fear and evil spirits will be freed from oppression.
3. Jesus the Preacher in Parables. Read Luke 15
The most distinctive aspect of the preaching of Jesus was his use of stories or parables. Many of the parables are short, pithy illustrations drawn from everyday life. They tell of women baking bread, neighbours rousing one another at dead of night to borrow food for an unexpected guest, farmers sowing seed, determined widows demanding justice from a corrupt legal system, beggars dying at the door of rich people’s houses, fishermen sorting their catch. All of these would have been everyday occurrences to the country folk of Galilee among whom Jesus preached. Often these parables are introduced with the words ‘the Kingdom of God is like this’ The point of the parable was to make the mysterious Kingdom of God as real as those events of everyday.
The chapter we have chosen as a typical example of Jesus’ preaching contains three parables: one about a lost sheep (1 -7), one about a woman losing a coin (8-10), and the third about a lost son ( 11-32). All of these would have been familiar situations to the audience. In the dry climate of Palestine, grass was scarce and the shepherds of a village might only find pasture for their sheep by driving them a considerable distance in search of fresh grass. It was almost inevitable that some animals would become separated from the flock as they moved to fresh pasture. Since the well-being of the whole family depended on the survival of every animal, shepherds would make great efforts to find the missing one and would share their joy at finding it with their fellow shepherds.
Coins were a scarce commodity in a world in which much trading was done by barter or the exchange of goods. A woman who kept a small stock of coins, perhaps from her wedding dowry, for a rainy day would be distraught at the loss of even one. Its recovery, after turning the house upside down, would be a cause of rejoicing with her neighbours.
The third parable, the longest, is a story of a different kind of loss, that of a child. Many ambitious young Jewish men who had the means left behind the limited opportunities that Galilee offered them for a new life elsewhere. Travel was difficult and leaving home meant going off for years, probably even a lifetime. What is interesting about the parable of the lost son is the deft way in which it explores the inner world of the boy. The carefree existence with unaccustomed wealth at his disposal is shattered by the famine. As he sits among the pigs (a most degrading place for a Jew to find himself), he comes to his senses and invents the speech he will make when he returns home. He never gets a chance to deliver it. The father he had abandoned rushes out to meet him, folds him in a warm embrace and welcomes him home.The story is not finished, however. The dutiful elder brother is aghast at the indulgent treatment of his feckless brother. The real point of this parable, the problem we are left with, is what does the elder brother do next? Does he enter the house to make his brother welcome, or does he go off to sulk in the barn while the celebration continues up at the house?
These parables of losing and finding have been called ‘the Gospel in miniature’. We find the answer if we go back to the very beginning of the chapter. These three parables were directed at Jesus’ critics, who objected to his welcome of the outcast, the untouchable sinners and the despised tax collectors who collaborated with the foreign Roman regime. The question they have to face is whether they want to belong to God’s inclusive kingdom that is indiscriminate in its welcome for the lost, or whether they wish to shiver outside, nursing their bitterness. Jesus’ critics during his life time imagined they were the good and the pious. How do you react to these stories of losing and finding?
4. Sight for the Blind. Read Mark 8:22-26 and 11:46-52 and John 9
In the programme for his ministry, Jesus singled out restoring of sight to the blind as one of its purposes. The word ‘blind’ occurs more than forty times in the gospels. Each Gospel contains several stories of Jesus curing blind people. Mark has a curious story of how he encounters difficulty in restoring sight to one man so that the cure needs to be repeated (Mark 8:22-26). In Mark’s second story, a blind beggar’s sight is restored and he ‘follows him along the road’ to Jerusalem.
John chapter 9 contains one of the longest miracle stories of the gospels. It is probably John’s version of the cure of the blind man at Jericho. John has moved the location of the story to Jerusalem and added a number of dramatic elements to it. It is worth reading attentively.
John’s version of the cure of the blind man takes place during the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. One of the highpoints of the celebration of this feast was the lighting of a great lamp in the Temple. During the feast, Jesus had claimed that he was the ‘light of the world’ and that anyone who followed him would never walk in darkness but would have the light of life (8:12). The restoration of the blind man’s sight is a proof of this claim. As Jesus and his disciples walk along, they see a blind beggar sitting by the way. The disciples ask a curious question: was the blindness caused by the man’s own sin or by the sin of his parents? Jesus replies that it was neither, but it was so that God’s work might be revealed by his cure. Making a paste of clay and spittle, he anoints the man’s eyes and sends him to wash it off at the Pool of Siloam, one of the main water supplies of the city.
You should notice something unusual at this point. Jesus disappears from the story only to return at the end (verse 35). For the rest of the story it is the blind man who holds centre stage. What happens now is virtually a trial before the Pharisees. The fact that Jesus performed this sign on the Sabbath they regard as proof that he cannot be from God. The man who had until shortly before been a blind beggar, one of the outcasts of society, proves to be the equal of the learned Pharisees in debating about God. In an effort to silence him, his frightened parents are brought in as witnesses. They are terrified because they have heard it said that anyone who takes the side of Jesus is to be expelled from the synagogue. So the man is left to battle alone, and what a defender of Jesus he proves to be. His stubborn refusal to deny his cure or to ascribe it to any source other than God’s action through his prophet Jesus earns him expulsion from the community.
It is only now that Jesus returns to the story and it is to complete the work he has begun when the man was still blind. Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, one of John’s favourite terms for Christ. It is a term that is unfamiliar to the man, but he knows that he can trust anything the man who has restored his sight tells him. He asks who he is so that he can believe in him. Jesus answers that he is looking at him. The man professes his faith in words that anticipate the final confession of Thomas after the resurrection, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him.
John’s version of this story is wonderfully rich in detail.The sending of the man to wash in the pool suggests baptism in which all future followers of Jesus will be restored to spiritual sight. The man’s spirited defence before the opponents of Jesus foretells the witness of many future followers who have had their sight restored. Every time we sing the hymn Amazing Grace we repeat the words of the man restored to sight: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
5. Teaching at Table. Luke 7:36-50
Jesus did not spend the time of his ministry alone. He gathered disciples, twelve of whom were given a special role as apostles to continue his work of preaching. The wider circle of his followers included women, some of whom had been cured by him or were attracted by his teaching to support him and his followers (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus preached in synagogues, on hillsides, and by the great Sea of Galilee, a vast inland lake at the centre of Northern Israel. One of the charges most commonly laid against him by his opponents was that he was a party person, that he was indiscriminate in accepting hospitality. He was guest of honour in the houses of tax collectors like Matthew or Zaccheus who cooperated with the Roman occupiers of the Jewish homeland. At times, he even accepted invitations to dinner from his fiercest critics, the self-righteous upholders of Jewish tradition.
In this story, we see how Jesus uses a dinner invitation as a way of teaching an important lesson. Among Pharisees, communal meals were very important for at least two reasons. They could be sure that the food served by one of their own group conformed to the most stringent regulations regarding purity in its preparation and serving. The meal was also a time of teaching, so the meal gained added merit by the addition of ‘words of Torah,’ that is, discussion of the Law and its observance. Meals of this kind were common after the lengthy Sabbath service of prayer and scripture reading.
The meal with Simon and his fellow Pharisees is interrupted by the arrival of an uninvited guest. Simon and his friends immediately recognise her as ‘a sinner’. Luke does not tell us what kind of sinner, but Pharisees were cautious in their dealings with any woman who was not an immediate relative. The new arrival does a most unexpected thing. At formal meals in fashionable houses like this the male guests reclined on couches around a low central table where the meal was spread.
The woman approaches the couch on which Jesus lies and begins to bathe his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair and anointing them with precious ointment. The dinner party comes to a standstill.
Jesus makes no move to brush the woman away, proof to his host that he cannot possibly be a prophet, otherwise he would have known what kind of woman this is. Jesus breaks the embarrassed silence by addressing his host. He puts a question to him about two debtors. The answer seems so obvious that Simon falls into the trap Jesus has laid for him. The two debtors are Simon and the woman. If she is now showing so much love, it is because she has felt such an enormous load of guilt being lifted from her.
Simon, on the other hand, did not prove an ideal host. He disregarded even the most basic rules of hospitality of how to treat a guest – there was no embrace of welcome, no water to wash the guest’s tired feet, no oil for the head. The woman, the so-called sinner, has made up for it all. Her sins are many, but they must have been forgiven, otherwise she would not have been able to show such love.
6. Death as Victory. Read Mark 15:21-41 and Luke 23:26-56
Jesus died the death of a slave or an outlaw. It was a painful death. Even more, it was a shameful death. Yet it was a life surrendered in love. It is through the death of Jesus that God’s salvation comes to men and women. He had said: ‘The Son of Man (himself) came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28). This saying looks back to a figure from the Book of Isaiah, called the Servant of the Lord, who freely surrendered himself to death but whose wounds brought healing to others (Isaiah 53:6). In his sermon at the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus had described his mission in words drawn from another passage of Isaiah very similar to those of the Servant who lays down his life. So his death is not defeat but an act of generous, saving love.
It will take the Christian community many years after the death of Jesus to work out the complete significance of his death. We can see this in the way in which the various Gospel accounts present the scene of his crucifixion on the hill of Calvary. They are not so much interested in telling us exactly what happened as in helping us to grasp what it all meant. If we read our texts separately, we may be able to see how the Gospel writers highlighted important aspects of the death of Jesus.
Mark presents Jesus as a ‘man of sorrows and familiar with suffering’ in ways that recall the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He has been abandoned by every one of his intimate friends. Weakened by torture and ill-treatment, he makes his way to Calvary but collapses under the weight of the cross and has to be assisted in carrying it by a stranger making his way in from the country. At the place of execution, he is stripped of his garments, which become the property of his executioners who gamble for them. From nine in the morning, he hangs on the cross as his enemies gather beneath it to mock him. For the final three hours of his life, darkness closes in as he hangs in agony. At three o’clock, the silence is broken by a cry of agony from the cross as Jesus prays: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The darkness and abandonment have reached deep into the soul of Jesus himself. The bystanders meet even this cry of agony with mockery. Hearing the first word of Jesus, which is taken from Psalm 22 (in Hebrew ‘My God’ is ‘Eloi’), they joke that he is calling on the prophet Elijah, the friend of the poor. One of his executioners offers him a drink of sour wine on a sponge but it is too late. Jesus bows his head as, with another wordless cry, he gives up his spirit.
There is, however, another commentary on the death of Jesus.The great curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. This seems to be intended to symbolise that the separation between God and his people is ended by the death of Jesus. The pagan officer who presided over the execution is forced to admit that this abandoned, broken wretch of a human being is truly the Son of God. Only a handful of women from among the followers of Jesus stand looking on from a distance to see how it will all end.
When we read Luke’s account of the death of Jesus immediately after Mark’s, we will be struck by some of the details Luke includes. Writing for an audience that was familiar with accounts of the noble and heroic deaths of great leaders and philosophers, like the great philosopher Socrates, Luke is anxious to point out that Jesus, as the Servant of God and the teacher, died in a similar noble fashion. Luke also wishes to affirm that not all the ordinary people of Jerusalem regarded Jesus as a criminal. As he makes his way to Calvary, he meets a group of women who are heartbroken at the sight of the teacher dragging his cross. He tells them not to weep for him, but to weep instead for the coming generations that will live through the tragedy of the city’s destruction. As the executioners prepare to nail his hands and feet to the cross, he prays “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is a supreme act of nobility. Luke also tells how the two outlaws crucified along with him responded to the mockery of Jesus. One curses him and demands that if he is the Son of God he save the three of them. The other recognises that this quiet, noble man who is crucified along with them has done no wrong and humbly asks that he remember them when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus’ answer “Today you will be with me in paradise” is a final act of preaching the good news and setting prisoners free that was part of the mission he inaugurated by reading the text from Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue.
As he dies, he does not make the anguished prayer of someone who is sunk in the darkness of abandonment but the confident prayer of one who has reached the end of a mission he has faithfully accomplished: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” Even after his death, Luke wishes to emphasise Jesus’ innocence. The officer declares him to be a just man. The crowds at the cross, most of whom have remained silent during the mockery of his enemies, return home beating their breasts as a sign of repentance and sorrow. Luke also suggests that the followers of Jesus can learn how they too should die from hearing the story of his death. Stephen, the first follower to die a martyr’s death, will pray for his enemies and die with a prayer on his lips handing his soul over to God’s keeping. So will many others down through history.
7. Christ is alive! Resurrection Stories. Read Matthew 28:1-10 and 16-20, Luke 24:13-35
Jesus is not a noble figure of the past to be imitated. He is the living Lord and Saviour who continues to draw people into the fullness of divine life. When Christians celebrate the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper in his memory, they often pray, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The Resurrection of Jesus is not simply a happy ending to a story in which a good man has been put to death but, by some miracle, unexpectedly comes back to life. The Resurrection is the foundation stone of Christian faith. We are Christians because we believe that death does not have the last word. God raised Jesus from the darkness of the tomb as a pledge that those who have submitted their lives to him in faith will constantly experience the wonder of new life.
There are two kinds of Easter stories. The first is about the discovery of the empty tomb, first by a group of women disciples and then by some of the apostles, with Peter as the chief witness. The second type of stories are called ‘appearance stories’ in which individual disciples or small groups of disciples see the Risen One. While the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb are very similar to one another, there is greater variety in the appearance stories. One reason for this variety is probably that they reflect not just memories of the first disciples, but also the experience of how the disciples of Jesus became aware of the heart-warming reality of his presence with them.
Matthew tells the story of the women’s discovery of the tomb. They were so shattered by the experience of Good Friday that they did not expect to find Jesus alive. They come to visit the tomb when the Sabbath is over. Mark and Luke suggest that they intended to anoint the body that had been hurriedly buried by strangers as the day of rest was approaching. On their way, there is a mighty earthquake that moves the stone from the tomb. When they reach it, they find not the dead body of Jesus but an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised. They are told to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. As they leave the tomb with mixed feelings of terror and joy, Jesus himself stands before them. He greets them and repeats the angel’s instruction that they are to go to Galilee where they will receive further instructions.The reunion in Galilee is told very briefly. They receive a commission to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to baptise in Jesus’ name. Although separated by death, he will continue to be with them and with all who receive their message until the end of time.
Luke’s account of an appearance to two disciples returning from Jerusalem, heart-broken and disappointed, is a masterpiece of this evangelist’s storytelling art. The two are Cleophas and his companion. If we allow for a slight difference in spelling, it is not unlikely that the companion may be the same Mary, the wife of Clopas John mentions as standing with Mary, the mother of Jesus, beneath his cross. Luke does not want merely to record this incident as something belonging to the dead past. It points to how future disciples of Jesus will come to know the reality of the Resurrection.
As the two pilgrims make their way along the road, they are joined by a stranger they do not recognise. He asks them why they look so sad, and they tell the story of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, including the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb.They are unable to take in the reality of the discovery of the tomb. The stranger begins to talk to them, placing the events of these days in the context of Israel’s history. He draws on psalms like Psalm 22 (‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’) that Jesus had prayed on the cross as well as the mysterious prophetic words of Isaiah’s suffering servant to make his point: was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter into his glory? As the conversation continues, the travellers feel their hearts strangely warmed, the gloom lifting and the light of resurrection breaks through.
As evening approaches, they have reached their destination. The stranger wants to go on, but they prevail on him to stay. At the meal in the house, he does something they have associated with Jesus — he takes bread, breaks it and gives it to them before vanishing from their sight.There can be no question — the stranger who cheered their hearts and offered them bread is the Living One in whose company they had come from Galilee to Jerusalem. It is back to Jerusalem they go, no longer afraid of the approaching darkness, to tell their story of how they had recognised him in the breaking of the bread. Luke has woven into this story many allusions to the life of the community as it continues to meet the Risen One. It is first of all by attentively reading the scriptures that they will understand how necessary it was for the Christ to suffer. But it is ‘on the road’ – on the way of discipleship and mission – that they will meet the Risen One, perhaps as a stranger. It is in hospitality to other strangers and wayfarers that they will entertain Christ as their guest. It is, above all, at the moment of the breaking of the bread at the community’s Eucharist in memory of him that they will feel their hearts warmed by his presence and that they will know that his presence with them cannot be destroyed by death.