My beloved Australian shepherd dog Judah died suddenly one week ago today. Except for a short trip that I took not long after adopting him, he and I were together every single day for nine years; I honestly don’t know how to live without him.
I’ve been walking every day since then, along exactly the same routes Judah and I would walk every day. We walked at least three, sometimes four times a day. Judah had a map of downtown Saugatuck firmly in his head; he knew which shops and restaurants had treats for him. He was quite insistent about stopping at those places on our late afternoon walk.
So I’ve been walking those routes this week, stopping at each of those places, remembering so clearly his beautiful face and his determined gait. I’m doing this not just because the exercise is good for me (though it is). I’m walking those routes because memory is often quite physical and bodily.
Memories run deep in our bones muscles, they take up residence in our guts and hearts. That’s why grief can be such a bodily experience; it can physically hurt. I can still feel the touch of Judah’s forehead on my lips where I kissed him while he died; I can still smell his soft and earthy fur.
The Gospel writer Luke tells us about two disciples of Jesus walking along a road toward a village called Emmaus (24:13-35). Luke puts this village at seven miles from Jerusalem, so this is not a short stroll, especially through that hill country of Judea.
These two disciples, these dear friends of Jesus, are walking with heavy hearts. Jesus had been horribly killed just three days prior. They are in shock, disoriented, probably afraid.
How do you go on after heartbreak, especially after trauma and violence? What do you do when it seems as if nothing will be the same ever again? How can you just walk to the village inn, just like you used to, as if nothing had happened?
Grief poses questions like these, repeatedly and painfully—things are not the way they were, and they will not be that way again. Significant loss will always change one’s life; this might be one of the earliest lessons everyone learns about life itself.
Those disciples knew that; that’s why they are so dejected and dismayed. Luke knew that, too, which is why he has the risen Jesus join the disciples on the road, but as a stranger, not even recognizable by his closest friends.
Easter does not put things back the way they were.
Nothing about the resurrection stories in accounts of the Gospel turns back the clock to how things used to be or how we wish they had been; that’s nostalgia, not resurrection.
Easter instead puts us on a road toward the fresh and startling, toward the unrecognizably new and vibrant.
It is also the case that this “stranger” on the road seems to lecture these disciples about the importance of the past, using the scriptures and quoting the ancient prophets. Later on, Luke tells us, these disciples marveled at how their hearts were burning within them, set ablaze by the compelling interpretations of Scripture they were hearing along the road.
This is not, however, a mere backward glance. We modern Western people tend to think that way, as if ancient texts remain roped off in a faraway, dusty history. To the contrary, shared memory, our texts and traditions, should help us understand who we are right now and how we got here, and therefore how to travel forward.
The “scriptures,” as Luke calls them, are meant to be a living tradition, speaking directly to the present moment for the sake of traveling faithfully toward an unknown horizon. This is why, in both Jewish and Christian communities, interpretations of ancient texts are always evolving, always brought to bear in fresh ways on current questions.
After all, Luke unfolds this story on a road; the disciples don’t even stay put at the village inn, not even for the night. They were—“in that same hour,” Luke says—back on the road. Luke portrays Christian communities on the move—shaped by sacred traditions but not enthralled by monuments or tethered to mere precedent; traditions are sacred when they keep our hearts open to the God who “makes all things new.”
This Emmaus-road story keeps Christian faith rooted equally in memory and hope, and especially how these intertwine in complex and compelling ways.
Both individuals and communities can sometimes become stuck in the past, perhaps paralyzed by painful histories or wistful about a fabled golden age; we can also become so enamored with “the next best thing” and constantly chasing after shiny objects that we become adrift, with no sense of where we are and with no compass to guide us forward.
Early in the twentieth century, philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce suggested that healthy communities must hold both memory and hope together; this can set us on a path to heal our wounds, repair our divisions, and unite us with love toward what Royce eventually called Beloved Community.
This made a profound impact on Martin Luther King, Jr., as he studied Royce in his doctoral program. The image of Beloved Community inspired King to reject any form of segregation or separatism in the Civil Rights Movement; he urged us instead to learn how to live with a shared memory of racial violence while also holding in common the hope of a future flourishing where all, no exceptions, live in peace with justice.
“Beloved Community” was Luke’s vision as well, especially in the aftermath of state-sponsored terror, a brutal execution, and a fragmented, scattered community of disciples and friends—a dismembered community. In the midst of this ghastly grief, Luke re–members the community around a table and during a shared meal.
In this story, Luke gives us all the elements of what Christians now recognize as Eucharist: our shared memory of what happened to Jesus; our shared hope of new life; the bread blessed, broken, and shared.
Blessing the bread reminds us that all things come from God and return to God.
In breaking the bread we see our own need for mending and healing.
By sharing the bread we embody a hopeful vision of wholeness and communion.
This is not only a bodily memory from the distant past but also a peculiar hope now and for the future. And I suspect that’s why Luke has Jesus suddenly and queerly disappear from that shared meal.
As Beloved Jesus vanishes from that table in Emmaus, Luke invites us to find him at all the other tables we set with hospitality, and where we welcome the stranger, and encounter the healing presence of the risen Christ—not to put things back the way they were, but to keep our hearts open to a future we cannot yet imagine.
In the meantime, I will keep walking the routes I once shared with Judah—because I miss him terribly and cherish the memories of walking with him. I will give thanks on those walks and along that road believing that the future of the risen Christ is not only my future but Judah’s, too.