"Holding Space," by Claire Helton
Now on the third day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This is one of our sacred stories,
Thanks be to God.
Imagine with me, friends, that you are Cleopas, walking down the road to Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, though no one is calling it that yet. So imagine that the sun has risen on this Sunday morning and now, as the early evening clings to the light of this day, you and your companion have set out for home. On that fateful Friday night you had finally managed to drift off to sleep, still in shock. Saturday you thought you wouldn’t speak to anyone. You desperately needed the time in solitude to begin to process what you had witnessed on Calvary; but when evening came you found yourself gathering with friends. There you had grieved together, had told stories of Jesus, had mourned the loss of him – the loss of everything that gave meaning and purpose to your days. And the grieving together was good. And having made that space in your hearts, you turned to your companion and said, “I think we better stick to the plan and go on home tomorrow; there are folks expecting us and we have obligations to fulfill. In the end, life goes on.”
And even the next morning, this morning, when so much had changed so quickly – the women came bursting in claiming things you could not have dreamed up – spouting off this unimaginable report. You sat, again, in shock, as a few of the others rushed off to see for themselves. When they returned, each sounding off with a different theory, you listened, you absorbed, then you reached the point where you could absorb no more. And you decided to stick to the plan because God knows in tough times we cling to what is predictable, and so there you were, in the fading light of early evening, on the road back toward home leaving Jerusalem with all its mystery behind you. Or at least that was your intent.
But you couldn’t stop talking about it, couldn’t stop turning it over again and again in your mind, trying to make sense of the jumble of information, of emotions, of fear and hope and bewilderment. Each time the conversation stalled, you would walk a few paces in silence before one of you broke back in with, “Now did I hear Mary correctly – did she say…” or, “Now hang on, they said the stone was already gone when they got there.” It must have been an hour or so that passed like this before you noticed him. A stranger who seemed to be intentionally lagging behind you. He had caught up to you so he was obviously walking faster and you tried to make room for him to pass but he seemed to have an interest in your conversation. And so finally you gestured for him to join you.
He was quiet, soft-spoken, but intentional in his speech. “I couldn’t help but notice how animatedly you were speaking with one another. What is it you were discussing? Has something happened in Jerusalem?”
You looked at one another.
“Brother, how is it you don’t know? Are you the only one in the city who hasn’t been following all the things that have happened there in the last few days?”
“What things?” he asked, so innocently.
And so you told him. And rather than finding him to be an unobservant tourist it seemed he was, instead, somehow schooling you. And you could’ve been irritated, but instead, you were grateful, because it was all you really wanted, in that moment: to talk with someone, with anyone, about Jesus.
In the conversation the time walking seemed to fly by. When another hour had passed and you were drawing near to your destination you noticed he didn’t seem to be slowing down.
And you were tired.
It had been a long day. A long week. The longest week.
You almost let him keep walking.
But if there was one thing you had learned from watching Jesus all those years it was the mutual grace of a warm welcome. You couldn’t let this man go on walking past dark, not when you had the means to provide him a place to stay. “Come with us,” you urged him, and though it took some back and forth, he accepted. He came in. The meal began. He took the bread, and he blessed it, and he broke it, and gave it to you. And in that breaking, you saw something true – you saw Jesus – and the moment your eyes were opened, it was like he had never been there at all.
In spite of the darkness, in spite of the hour, you dropped everything and you ran – 7 miles! – back down the road from Emmaus to Jerusalem, back to your community, back to the ones who would understand how everything hinged on this. And you could’ve missed it. But you invited him in. And he was made known to you in the breaking of bread.
There was a story the original audience of Luke’s gospel would have been familiar with, the way we’re familiar with the tale of Romeo & Juliet, whether we had to read it in 9th grade English or not. It was a story that had been around for centuries: Homer’s The Odyssey. Toward the end of the saga, Odysseus has returned home to Ithaca from his adventures and needs to assess whether, in his long absence, his friends and family have remained loyal to him. Many believe him to be dead, and his wife is being hounded by one suitor after another, so Odysseus returns in disguise to feel out the situation.
When he first arrives on shore he finds shelter with a childhood friend – though the friend, of course, does not recognize him. But this man, this friend, offers a welcome to a stranger, a place to find a meal and a bed. This man who wins Odysseus’ trust through an act of welcome, who – as the story progresses – demonstrates his fidelity to his old friend so that in a climactic moment Odysseus finally chooses to reveal his true identity, to open his eyes: this man’s name is Eumaeus.
Archaeologists have no record of a town in the place Luke describes with a name like Emmaus. No record of a physical place. What we have, instead, is Homer’s story. A story about a hidden identity being revealed, of truth being uncovered, by a man who practiced hospitality named Eumaeus. And by invoking this story Luke tells us that the end of the saga is near, that great truth has begun to be revealed in our midst.
In Homer’s story, Odysseus’ aim in enlisting his friend Eumaeus and all those he can trust is to obtain backup to come to his aid as he brutally slaughters all the suitors who, in his absence, have made advances on his wife. Odysseus’ return is about claiming rightful ownership, and it leads to bloodshed.
It’s as if Luke is saying, This is the story you know. But unlike the return of Odysseus, Jesus’ return comes on the other side of his own blood being shed, and instead of being about authority or ownership, it’s about throwing his arms wide open, about setting a table at which there is a place for everyone. Jesus’ return points to an abundance of life, and grace, and welcome – so much welcome – for everyone.
So imagine that you’re a pastor who decides to preach this story of hospitality and welcome to a congregation stuck in isolation for the foreseeable future (Wouldn’t that be silly? …As silly as a pastor preaching resurrection to a congregation that’s bound to die).
So what does hospitality look like right now?
Hospitality, welcome: it’s about making space; holding space. In this season when so many of us are feeling cooped up, feeling cramped, it’s about holding space for those we love. Maybe that’s through a phone call or facetime with the folks who are nearest our hearts; or embracing the mixed blessing of this extended time with those who live under our roof; even when we’re tired, even when we don’t think we can be fully present.
Maybe it’s about holding space for our community. Some of us have a more natural tendency to look for the needs of those around us, and even when we can’t solve them, to hold them in our hearts, to allow them to affect us, to work to change what we can. For others, this is more of a discipline. Either way, it is holy and creative work.
And maybe – no, certainly – it’s about holding space for ourselves. You know that old adage, you can’t pour into others if your own cup is empty. It is so abundantly true right now. How can you be hospitable to yourself this week? How can you make space, hold space, for your deepest, truest self in these next few days? Truly, the world has never needed you to care for yourself more than it does in these days. So please, for our sakes, take care of yourself.
Friends, there is a great mystery that took place in Jerusalem that weekend. You have witnessed it. You have gone about your life, because in the end, life goes on. And then, in an instant, in the breaking of bread, your eyes have been opened to the grace of our welcoming God. May you never close them again.