We are living in an age of apprehension, mistrust, and what has been termed “alternate facts.” If you don’t agree with someone’s idea or opinion, just cancel it; put it outside the ambit of consideration. It is no longer in the realm of belief or discussion.
This is not a new line of thinking. I suspect it was prevalent, albeit in different terms, around 35 AD. How would the rumor about an obviously deceased person returning to life have been treated? The event was witnessed and the story was circulated that Jesus, the rabble-rouser from Galilee, no longer roamed the earth. In fact, he was crucified as an insurrectionist, no longer available to the multitudes of people who worshiped the ground he walked on. But some said he was alive; they had seen him, talked with him, ate with him. Not possible—it must be just a tall tale perpetrated by those who were pinning their hopes on this zealous reformer who sought to overthrow Roman occupation and extricate Israel from the clutches of the heathens. Conspiracy theory alert: some of his followers had stolen his body and are calling it a resurrection from the dead.
There was a crucifixion and death, to be sure, attested to by eyewitnesses, and the victim was the well-known mischief-maker from Nazareth. To the nonbelievers in his cause, he was just a flash in the pan among the many zealots who arose to assert the independence of the Hebrew nation. He was executed. He was dead. It was a fact.
But the alternate story would not go away. The word was being circulated that he was alive, that he had somehow won out over death. If this happened today, outlandish as it is, some would actually believe it, but most realistic people would consider it just another example of hoping against hope, the imaginings of those who had cast all their dreams and aspirations on this potential savior. A very vocal minority were convinced that he was alive but, after all, they were not very well educated. Anyone, particularly those in high places, just poo-pooed the idea as the vain yearnings of a people desperate for liberation.
Things have not changed that much over the centuries. They have just been given new names. Alternate facts and cancel culture are not really new. I suspect there was even an ancient form of texting, without benefit of 5G technology. For example, when did the acronym, ἰχθύς (ICHTHUS)—Jesus, Son of God, Savior—first make the rounds among the followers of Jesus? Was it a sort of “netspeak” or “chatspeak” written in sand, meaningful only to followers of the Way? But the burning question remains: How did this story continue for thousands of years?
Of all the unfolding chronicles about Jesus being alive after his crucifixion, I have an affinity for the events that are told in Luke’s Gospel about the travelers walking along the road to Emmaus when Jesus, not recognized, meets them and is invited to walk along with them. The story has been romanticized and brought to life in many ways over the years, especially in classical art. For me, one of the most impressionable is The Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. Perhaps it is his simple but powerful depiction of the scene at table in Emmaus, the chiaroscuro—the painting technique of creating a dramatic play of light and shadow—or maybe it is because Jesus is not romanticized in his appearance, and all the figures look like peasants who have just come off the dusty road from Jerusalem. Or perhaps I see what is portrayed as being a celebration of Eucharist, an event that leaves me in a reflective mood. It is a story of resurrection and more. It is about remembrance and bringing to life again.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Look deeper into the story of the travelers on the way home to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection, how they meet up with a stranger who sheds light on the history of Israel. Walking and talking, the stranger opens up the scriptures to them on their long journey from Jerusalem. It is getting late, so they invite him in for dinner when they finally arrive home. “And when he had sat down with them at table, he took bread and said the blessing; he broke the bread, and offered it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:30–31).
He vanished. Living, breathing human beings don’t suddenly vanish. Put yourself in the travelers’ place: What would you feel and think at this moment? They left the table and their food and rushed back to Jerusalem to tell their incredible story. They didn’t care about the darkness nor the seven and a half miles back on foot. They were overwhelmed and had to share with the rest of the small community what happened to them. I can imagine how they stumbled over their words telling their story about “how he had been recognized by them at the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35).
Had they just celebrated Eucharist? Thanksgiving? The stranger told them the story of God-with-us as they were walking along. They were inspired and stirred to have the scriptures come alive. And then they sat down together. He took the bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and offered it to them. The basic elements of what we know as Mass were there.
The story as Luke tells it is probably a mythological form of passing on an instruction or lesson. He was telling a story to make a point, and the point was that Jesus was alive, albeit as a spiritual presence. It had to be a spiritual presence, or a new kind of reality other than his bodily presence that his followers had known so well. In the events of his appearance after the resurrection, at times his friends didn’t recognize him. At other times he appeared before them, passing through doors and walls. It was a different presence. What made Jesus alive for those who loved him and believed in his message, his life and his death, was an enduring presence prompted and fortified by a deep hope that he would never die; an unwavering faith that he was the Messiah, the liberator of Israel; and perhaps, most of all, a love that would not be diminished.
In the noncanonical Coptic Gospel of Thomas found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the writer always refers to Jesus as “the living Jesus.” Instead of speaking of “resurrection,” the author speaks of an “unbroken” and “abiding” presence. We must not be overly simplistic about Jesus’s aliveness after his death, or else we fall into magic and fable, fertile ground for developing what today might be called a conspiracy theory.
Common in our modern age of biblical exegesis is the suggestion that Jesus did not really arise bodily from the dead, a human being, whole, complete, not unlike any other person who trod the dusty roads of Israel. Alongside this bold statement questioning bodily resurrection we must examine closely the scriptures, particularly the words of Saint Paul in which, time and again, he writes of a “spiritual” body. After all, in Gospel accounts Jesus does superhuman things and appears apparently out of nowhere at times. If this was not a spiritual presence, then what was it? Certainly not a bodily presence as we know it. The stories of Jesus being alive and present to his followers refer to a new and different kind of presence that must be called nothing short of spiritual, for want of a better term. Does this mean that Jesus was not really alive and among his followers?
History tells us still a different story. The word about Jesus and what he had done during his short time spread far and wide, so that toward the end of the first century two nonbiblical and non-Christian accounts had been recorded about him and his people. The Jewish scholar and historian Flavius Josephus, contemporary of Jesus, left a brief record of Jesus and his movement. What is more amazing is that the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote in his Annals, albeit disparagingly, of “a class of men . . . whom the crowd styled Christians” and “Christus, the founder of the name.” These accounts show that the story of the followers of the Way, as it was then called, had already reached Rome at least by the end of the first century. People, charismatic people, prophets and saviors whose missions have failed, may go down in history, but their teachings live now only in books—except for this one called Jesus, the Christ.
To return to the story of Emmaus, I have noted that there are two intertwined and related narratives here: resurrection and Eucharist, Jesus alive and present. For Christians, followers of the Way, they are very much of a piece. According to Catholic belief, intentional remembrance (in the sense of ritualizing an event in order to remember) is to make real again, to make words or deeds come alive again.
Catholicism and Christianity are not the only religions that believe this. Telling a story in a serious, reverential place and time is to summon the holy, the otherworldly, the sacred. It may happen among the Native Americans, or it might come from a tribe hidden in the jungles of Brazil. Taking bread and wine and doing what we do in memory of Jesus, the Christ, is not unique to Christianity. A ritual meal is as ancient as humanity. Time evaporates into the timeless. It may even happen to us when we recall the people or persons we love. To remember them in a solemn way is to bring them to life again. Those who have loved and lost know this.
The disciples of Jesus on the road to Emmaus loved and lost—or did they? They were made to recall and remember. And then to sit down and break bread and share the cup together with the Stranger—that was the tipping point. He lives. Run. Spread the word. We recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
All the while the disciples’ faith grew, and the church grew and reached far and wide. And He is still with us today, in the breaking of the bread.
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.