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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Rising from the Dead 3: The Emmaus Tapes

3. The Emmaus Tapes 
"Emmaus," by Filipino artist Emanuel Garibay (2000).

My spirit loves that there is a special gospel for Easter when mass is said in the late afternoon or evening, and the gospel for those masses is the story of the road to Emmaus. Even in Year A, however, the narrative makes its way into regular Sunday hearing on the third Sunday of Easter, with the second Sunday always reserved for John "Pentecost" on the third day, and the "eighth day" story of Thomas.

As if there weren't enough to endear me to the story of Emmaus, which, in the day, we so often used for a missioning service for folks who came to our initiation workshops for the North American Forum on the Catechumemate, the wonderful James Alison yokes the Emmaus story with its eucharistic allusion with the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews as he begins his "introduction to Christianity for adults" in book and video, entitled Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. In Alison's hands, what was incomprehensible in the Letter to the Hebrews becomes more inviting, and the story of Emmaus becomes more compelling than ever, a parable of wrenching conversion that turns chaos into a passion for life ("fire burning within us") and a change of direction that helped to birth the church out of the devastation wrought among the disciples of Jesus by his crucifixion.

A brief introduction to Alison's thoughts on the 
"forgiving victim" of Emmaus.

I could not do justice to Alison's exegesis on the Emmaus story here, but do want to remark before proceeding that he helps us to hear, through the Greek in the text, the extent of the roiling doubt and confusion left in the community in the wake of Jesus's execution. (One of my favorites, by way of example, is his pointing out of the verb antiballete in Greek, often translated as "discussing," might be heard differently:)
So, this third person draws up, unrecognized, and says to them: “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other (οὓς ἀντιβάλλετε πρὸς ἀλλήλους) as you walk?” Well, lest you think that this third party has lighted upon a quiet afternoon chat between two English vicars, who are strolling gently along by a river bank and saying things like “Awfully interesting things seem to have happened to Jesus.” “Yes, really, quite fascinating. Wonder what they’ll make of this in Tübingen!”, I’ve included the Greek word antiballete, from which we get our word “antiballistic”, and it means to toss back and forth in a somewhat violent manner. So rather than a quiet discussion, what is going on here is a row: you know the old joke, “two Jews, five opinions” — a considerably charged exchange of multiple viewpoints.
Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 54). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition. 
He gets around to trying help us understand, both in this chapter and later when he's talking about the disorientation and reorientation of our lives (like the early witnesses) when we realize that God is the protagonist of our story, not us, that this turmoil is completely natural, as deep as our bones and our dreams, because we're literally pulled out of the orbit of our consciousness and drawn into the gravity of  I AM. What we thought was reality, our interacting with the world, our receiving our identity from people who may not know who they are, learning the patterns of desire and behavior of a world that has only subscribed to and learned from "civilizing" violence, turns out to be a lie, a poisonous vapor, and that all the while the Forgiving Victim has come back from the gallows and the grave with another path, another civilization formed by love, patterned after the love of God that "makes the sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike," and who is made visible once and for all in Jesus.

What struck me about this this year, as I listened to the readings week after week from Acts of the Apostles and then from First Peter, and harkened back to the Matthew and John passion narratives, was the number of references through the season to "Moses and the prophets" in the kerygmatic speeches of Peter and others. It brought me back time after time to that line in the Emmaus story, when Jesus says to his companions, “'O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them (διερμἠνευσεν αὐτοι̑ς) in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, became their hermeneutic principle. He retold to them their chaotic story, the same story that made no sense to them, with a new thread that they had been unaware of, however steeped in the scripture, history, faith, and ethos of the Jewish people they may have been. And, Alison is quick to add, this was not merely a religion class: he was interpreting their understanding of their existence to them. There was no Jewish faith without a Jewish nation, every meal, every relationship, history, festival, and crime was related to the story. He told them, in their own vocabulary and through stories they knew and their experience of the life and death of Jesus, what their own lives meant.

In Acts 10, the section read on Easter, Peter talks about what he and the other disciples have witnessed in Jesus, in front of a mixed group of Gentiles (God-fearers) converts and Jews, about the meaning of the death of Jesus and his need to witness to the meaning of that death as it unfolded in the (unhappily, untold) story of the centurion Cornelius and his family. Like the mission to Samaria and the council of Jerusalem, this is a foundational moment in the self-awareness of Christianity, or "universal Judaism." 1 Peter 2 -3 has references in the Sundays after Easter to Psalm 16, Isaiah 28, Psalm 118, Isaiah 8, Exodus 19, and that's just the times Peter/Luke directly quote those scriptures. I've been attending daily mass through Easter (I'll give you a little time to get up off the floor and let that sink in) and the pattern continues throughout Acts. In Acts 7, alluded to during the 3rd week of Easter only with the end of Stephen's discourse and his death, Stephen tells his Jewish accusers their own story leading to Jesus by quoting from or referencing parts of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Amos, Jeremiah, Josue, Isaiah, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, and Psalms, and that's just what I can remember from the footnotes! Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 discuss Isaiah 53 in interpreting the meaning of Jesus. Paul's address in Pisidian Antioch to the gathered Jews and God-fearers refers to Exodus, Deuteronomy, Josue, Judges, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, and Psalms.

OK, I think you're getting the idea. So why did I call this blog post, and this wash of insight over these Easter weeks, "The Emmaus Tapes"?

It seems to me that there are a lot of "lost years" between the death of Jesus and the arrival of Paul on the scene as the apostle to the Gentiles. One possible dating of the Council of Jerusalem, recounted in Acts 15, puts it around 50 CE, so maybe a period of twenty years after the events surrounding the death of Jesus. During that time, in addition to continuing to pray in the "synagogues" and temple and thus hearing again and again their own scripture read to them and discussed and prayed over with Jesus in their hearts, they also met at table, went about doing good works, and told their own stories and developed their own traditions about what Jesus said and did.
"Emmaus," by Janet Brooks Gerloff

This was all "post-Easter catechesis," wasn't it? It dawned on me that one way of seeing the Emmaus narrative is as a parable of that process. Or, conversely, we might see the apostolic narrative, the speeches of Peter, and especially the first letter of Peter, as an "unveiling" of the Emmaus tapes. If you have wondered, with me, what Jesus said on the road the made the hearts of Clopas and his unnamed companion (me? you?), maybe these stories in Acts and 1 Peter, the apostolic kerygma, is the answer, or was the answer for the Jewish hearers and their gentile God-fearer peers of the day.

For us, see, the interpretative key for our story, which includes the stories of the Jewish scriptures, the Christian scriptures, the songs and stories we learned in school and from our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and priests, along with the sturm und drang, the clang and chaos of political doublespeak, broken promises, class war, the ephemeral comforts of retail therapy, overeating, obsessing over health and beauty, worship of youth and success, all of that, everything which has us hurling antiballistic epithets at each other and crawling to church, booze, entertainment, and drugs in order to make the pain go away: the interpretative key for our story is Jesus Christ, dead and risen. He is the image of the invisible God, power that serves, utterly alive, who offers unconditional love and forgiveness that precedes our asking for it, like Grandma's, only better. Jesus taught Grandma. All the grandmas. Or the God of whom Jesus is the image did.

This is how Easter is ever new. It's the annual, eternal "Follow me" from Jesus that assures us that it will be OK to go to the place of the victim, to stand with the rejected, to risk forgiving and reconciliation, because God has already gone into that place and remains there, hallowing it. The tornadic clatter and roar of modern life is stilled by the voice of the Messiah, whose word approaches with a thread that binds all of life into a song for the pilgrim's road. The Emmaus tapes, playing still in the words of the apostles, ring down the ages to our grumpy, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful hearts, offering yet a walk into a new world, this world, transformed by a different gravity, known by the fire in our hearts, bellies, and laughter when we remember the music of his voice.

Summary: Rising from the dead drops us into the unknown, and for a while it's like waking up in a different house when its still dark. But the new house has been prepared with loving hands, and we discover that it is a commune. A new narrative replaces what we had thought was our story. We are finally ourselves, finally home.