"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Homily: Walking to Emmaus

Preface: Most art of this wonderful Gospel story from Luke makes the textually groundless and culturally unlikely assumption that the nameless disciple accompanying Cleopas is another man. Sr. Marie Paul and G.E. Mullan have instead created powerful depictions reflecting the strong likelihood that she was actually one of Jesus' many women disciples, named in John's Gospel as present at the cross and married to a male disciple with the virtually identical name of Clopas.

Likewise, whatever your personal interpretation of the Gospels' clear statements that Jesus had four named brothers--one of them James, an important leader of the early community--and at least two nameless sisters (I have named them Esther and Shira, or song, in honor of a great heroine of the Hebrew Bible and the wise and witty daughter of my Judaism professor at ND whom I often cared for) it is clear that the Holy Family was actually a large and diverse group rather than the only child version of so much art. Finally, Mark 14:13 makes clear that there were more than twelve disciples in the Upper Room when it speaks of him sending two ahead to make preparations--surely taken from the ones who would be competent at the marketing and cooking!--and then arriving with the twelve, and probably some others, in time for the Supper. Piasecki's Last Supper is more accurate than the usual portrayals not just in including women and children, always key participants at a Seder, but showing all present as clearly first century Jews rather than Renaissance Italians!

(Image: Sr. Marie Paul)

Miriam and Cleopas trudged wearily and silently along the dirt road. After several days and nights of fear, grief, guilt, and anger they were utterly spent. Miriam briefly wondered what was in her husband’s mind and heart, then returned to the restlessness of her own. How could it be true? One more demonstration of Roman brutality, one more betrayal by the priestly caste that colluded with them, one more false, failed Messiah. What a fool she had been to trust, to believe that things could be different, to imagine that someone from her own village--her own best friend’s brother—could be the chosen one of God.

Miriam sighed as she thought of that friend. Though it had been three years since Shira’s death, the pain and memories had resurfaced as fresh as ever since Jesus’ torture and execution at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers. Watching in terror as blood gushed in fountains despite the desperate labor of the midwife and her assistant, and the joy at Benjamin’s birth turned to anguish. Feeling her own child leap in her womb as she watched her friend’s face grew pale and her voice faint. “Esther, your son” – “Little one, your mother.”

The words were addressed to Shira’s older sister, who had plenty of milk for the boy; her year old daughter now ran, climbed and jumped everywhere, nursing less and eagerly learning to eat fruit and cheese. But Shira’s eyes sought Miriam’s too, in a wordless appeal to which her breaking heart willingly assented. If she survived her own birth the following month, she would love Benjamin as her own, tell him stories of his mother’s youth, make him the most welcome friend to her own firstborn.

And she did, until the horrific day two years later when Simeon was taken by a sudden fever. She couldn’t stand to see Benjamin anymore, couldn’t stand life in Nazareth at all, and neither could Cleopas. When he suggested that they join the growing group of disciples following Jesus on his mission, she eagerly assented. Her namesake, Jesus’ mother, sighed wearily at the news but kissed and blessed them on their way. She knew that Jesus had a special mission, but had felt angry and betrayed when he left so soon after Shira’s death, which followed Joseph’s by less than a year. Didn’t he know how much the family needed him? Couldn’t God’s call, so long delayed in coming to clarity, wait another year till they had all adjusted?

(Image: Bohdan Piasecki)

Thank heavens they had been reconciled before the end, his mother rushing to Jerusalem in time to join the others at that bittersweet Passover meal. Miriam recalled leaning back against Cleopas’ chest, intently watching Jesus’ actions and listening to his startling words. Jesus tenderly washed their feet, something the women usually did, and she remembered the recent feast Martha had prepared to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life. Her sister, yet another Miriam, had anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. The others had been both moved by the grace and intimacy of her gesture, and troubled by his cryptic words about burial, put out of mind till he spoke in a similar way tonight.

“My body, given for you”—she tasted the fresh bread she and the other women had baked. Her mind flashed to the awkward, eager nights of love when she and Cleopas first became one flesh. It had been so long now. Other couples in the group managed to find the needed privacy, but their desire had cooled after Simeon’s death, and she was terrified of another bereavement even when Joanna whispered to her of herbs that the women at court used to prevent conception. “My blood, poured out for you” – she sipped the rich wine Cleopas handed her. Her empty breasts ached as she remembered the bliss of drowsily nursing Simeon on the sleeping mat, with Cleopas’ arms enfolding them both.

The next day she stood as close as she could to Jesus with Magdalene and John. Cleopas was farther back, with the few male disciples who hadn’t run away with Peter and the others. She watched Jesus’ mother, looking at him with eyes full of unshed tears, and her heart was torn between compassion and resentment. She couldn’t imagine watching people torture and kill her beloved son —but at least she had gotten to watch her son grow up. And he had made a free choice to speak the truth even at the risk of death, rather than being snatched by a stupid, pointless disease. Then even those conflicted feelings fled, as Jesus’ face paled and his voice grew faint. “Woman, your son” – “My friend, your mother.” As on the day of Shira’s death, those solemn words were followed by a cry of anguish, and an uncontrollable gush of blood, caused this time by the soldier’s spear piercing savagely into Jesus’ side.

Lost in her memories, she barely registered when Cleopas said something, and was startled when another traveler approached and spoke to them cheerfully: “What are you talking about this fine day?” Cleopas looked at him as if he were crazy, and frustrated words spurted from his mouth. “Are you the only person in Judea who doesn’t know what’s been going on this week?” Miriam’s tongue unloosed, and they started speaking over each other as they poured out the story.

Following Jesus, hearing his words of fiery challenge, and seeing his miracles. Being sent out on their own to preach the good news, and like the rest of the seventy, being astonished when the Spirit moved through their hands as well. Their combined prayer healed a little girl with the same fever that had taken Simeon, and it brought peace to their hearts. They agreed that they were ready to see Benjamin again, and maybe even to open to a new life in their own family. Marching into Jerusalem behind Jesus’ donkey, with the crowds cheering, and their hearts rising to think that Israel would be free once more. And then the grief, and the fear, and the wild claims of angels made by some of the other women, and the recriminations that had finally driven them to leave the other disciples in Jerusalem and begin the long walk home.

The man waited till they were talked out, then smiled wryly and challenged Cleopas: “Don’t you know the scriptures? Wasn’t that the fate of every true prophet?” Turning to Miriam, he added “Isn’t pain--sometimes death--always the price of new life?” Shocked into silence, they listened as he spoke on, their dead hearts slowly starting to spark to new life. There was something about his manner that resembled Jesus—but no, that was impossible, and he didn’t really look that much like him anyway. As they approached the inn in Emmaus, the sun was setting. The stranger said, “Here’s where I leave, you, friends. Thanks for your company.” “Oh, please stay and eat with us,” Cleopas urged, and she added her voice to his. She felt stronger and more hopeful in his company, and wanted to delay the despair she was sure would return at his departure. The man smiled again and agreed, and they went in and ordered a simple meal from the innkeeper.

(Image: G.E. Mullan)

He brought water first, and Miriam knelt to wash Cleopas’ feet; she saw tears well up in his eyes, though they didn’t fall, and felt the same sting in her own. She turned to the stranger next, but Cleopas shook his head and took the towel and basin from her. Her renewed grief turned to wonder as her husband followed their rabbi’s example for the first time, washing the stranger’s feet and then hers, with a tenderness which awakened her heart—and some other parts she had thought long dead. She smiled at him with a promise of the pleasure they would later share and the child they hoped would flower from it.

Then they all washed their hands in another basin, and her famished stomach made an embarrassing noise as the innkeeper’s daughter placed cups and a flagon on the table. “My mother’s bread is the best in Emmaus,” she assured them, “but it’s in the oven yet. Just a few more minutes.” So they quenched their thirst with the wine and eagerly set upon the tart goat cheese, salty olives, and sweet grapes that accompanied it.

A few minutes later the girl returned with a steaming loaf of barley bread. Mary reached out to serve it to the others, but the stranger forestalled her, as Cleopas had earlier. He reached for it, broke it in pieces, and handed one to each of them. Jesus! It was him! How could she have missed it before? Miriam's heart leapt and she clutched at Cleopas in shock, looking away from Jesus for a moment. When she looked back she received another shock—he had completely vanished. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for another rush of grief, then realized that it wasn’t coming. She couldn’t see him, but she could still feel him with her somehow, and she could tell from Cleopas’ dancing eyes that he could too. “Come on, let’s go back…” “We need to tell the others…” They both spoke at once, then laughed as they cut off their jumbled sentences. Cleopas reached in his pouch for a few coins and tossed them on the table. She grabbed their cloaks, then her beloved’s hand, and they set off together in the star-filled night.

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