Where is Emmaus? The Gospel says it is about 7 miles or 11.4 kilometres from Jerusalem. A few manuscripts say it was about 31 kilometres away from Jerusalem and other sources say it was the seat of the Roman Emmaus that served as a significant regional administrative, military and economic centre. It is named in the first Book of Maccabees related to the wars against the Greeks by Judas the Maccabees and may have been the site of the first Hasmonean battles. One source says it was destroyed by the Romans in 4 BCE and again by an earthquake in 130/1 CE. It was later established in the early third century on the ruins of Emmaus, as Emmaus Nicopolis, and became a large city. In the last century the Palestinian village of Imwas between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv existed on the site until it was destroyed in the six days war of 1967 and all of its inhabitants were forced to leave. The remains of Emmaus Nicopolis are contained since 1973 within Canada Park, established by the Jewish National Fund of Canada, and administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. But since 1993, the archeological sites including the Basilica ruins are maintained by a French Catholic Community. This is where Emmaus may have been and is, but that’s not the whole story.
Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke is a journey and destination for two followers of Jesus. But we don’t know them or for what reason. Is it to escape for their safety or to escape their grief, or both? It is to try to go back to what they knew or to go forward to something new? The journey is a time to talk about all that had happened to Jesus, and we hear, to be sad together. That’s a journey and destination we understand, during this pandemic time, and particularly this past week.
I know a number from this community have been calling people of the congregation to check in, to ask how we are doing, if there is anything we need, how are spirits are as the physical distance and isolation goes on, as this pandemic journey and road to an Emmaus somewhere goes on. It is deeply appreciated and an important way of connecting.
I know too for many there are other calls, phone or video calls to family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. Staying connected and seeing each other at least in this way, helps the loneliness and physical separation and isolation. It is important. Many of us are on calls like this every day. Our calls with family and friends have been all this, not being together physically as we wish, but so important to see and hear one another during this time. And as we are re-learning, to stay connected like this at all times.
I experienced this last week again making calls to people more recently connected to the congregation to check in and see how they were doing. I was impressed by people’s resilience and positive ways of coping and caring for themselves and others. There were struggles and challenges too. And there were words of trust in God with us, and our being in this together. It lifted my spirits to hear their witness to this faith and hope and love of God and one another.
And this is a greater collective experience around us as well. Whether it is heart Canadian flags in windows, banging pots and pans at seven, words and deeds of kindness and caring, donations to assist others, a nod or smile and words like “take care” or “stay well” as we pass one another on the street or trail and move over to allow for physical distance, all of these words and deeds express a greater common care and concern for others and our wellbeing together that is important, as we know, not only in this time, but we hope and pray that we remember in words and deeds at all times.
But the events of last Sunday “cut to the heart” to use the words from Acts today. The tragic violence and death in Nova Scotia last Saturday and Sunday leaving 23 people dead and so many reeling in shock and grief in these small communities and across Canada, all amidst this pandemic that isolates and distances us from one another, was sadness upon sadness. Many of us who are able, I would guess, just walked in grief and sadness, wondering where does this journey lead? What will be the destination? Where’s Emmaus? And who will walk with us?
The Gospel story holds the promise of Jesus joining us on the way. In our time, Jesus would have to keep his distance. And if wearing a mask, we wouldn’t recognize him either. And we could fill the time, whether 11 or 31 kilometres with stories of sadness and loss. And as the story promises, Jesus listens.
The disciples share the story of their sadness and grief with this stranger who joins them on the road. The story about Jesus, a prophet mighty in deed and word, and the one they hoped would redeem Israel, but who was condemned to death and crucified. And now on the third day, some women astounded them telling of going to the tomb and finding it empty and seeing a vision of angels who said he was alive. And some of them went to the tomb themselves and found it just as the women had said. And Jesus says, “O how foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”
On Monday we arrived at the office to a message left on the phone. It was a stranger, calling for a neighbour, who was in hospice, who had a cancer diagnosis late last year, and had declined rapidly in the past few days. They had been part of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in another city and the neighbour thought they would appreciate some pastoral care as they near the end of life’s journey. We spoke together about their concern and care for a neighbour and dear friend, with no local family, and isolated because of the pandemic. I promised to call. I did early that afternoon and reached voice mail and left a message and my number. What did strike me was how positive and cheery the voicemail message was, a voice full of energy, appreciative of the call, encouraging leaving a message because it was important, a promise to return the call, and wishes for a wonderful day! I did not hear from them and called again the next morning, but again no answer. Later in the morning I did receive a call back, but from the neighbour again, to let me know the friend and neighbour had died the evening before. I was shocked and saddened, and apologized that I had not reached them by phone. “It’s okay,” they said, and told me because of their grave condition, they were allowed to go into hospice and hold their neighbour’s hand and be present through their death. They said, “I guess calling you was too little too late.” I said, “No, you are a good friend and neighbour, and you were there for them in their journey from this life to the next.” Where’s Emmaus? It’s in a Hospice room with a good friend and neighbour during a pandemic, physically present to them, as Jesus is present to his friends, to us, on life’s journeys.
On CBC radio on Friday, Matt Gallagher on the Current, hosted a show on Stories of joy and hope. Part one was what they called a Nova Scotia Kitchen party, with musicians isolated in parts of the Maritimes sharing stories and songs that give them hope and joy. And that was followed with interviews and other examples from across the country of creative and compassionate words and deeds of joy and hope in this pandemic. Emmaus is a virtual Nova Scotia Kitchen party and stories of goodness on the radio in our sadness and grief, hope and joy together.
On the previous morning, Tom Power, host of Q, interviewing Nova Scotia actor, Jonathan Torrens, talked about the virtual vigil that was took place on Friday evening. When asked how he was doing, Torrens, who lives in between the communities where the shootings took place, said he would answer as most Nova Scotians would normally respond, knowing sadness and sorrow alongside joy and hope. He said with a breaking voice, I want people to know, “We’re not doing too badly,” he said. And those seemed true and hopeful words for a people in grief finding a way to gather together to remember and honour and celebrate neighbours and friends whose lives were taken from the community and a whole country with them. Emmaus is a Maritime and National Vigil to honour those who died and uphold those who have to live on, hoping, praying, they’re doing not too badly. And trusting Jesus meets them on the roads of their communities, and the common road of our grief together, revealing to us hope and new life.
We know how this Gospel story ends today. The disciples arrive at Emmaus, and seeing Jesus about to depart, urge him strongly to stay with them. And Jesus does, and when they are at the table, Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them and they recognize Jesus. That is what we would look forward to now at this table of Holy Communion, and long to share in again with Jesus. To taste and see Emmaus, Jesus with us. And that we will do again. And that we can do now, where we are, at Emmaus, whenever we break bread, alone or with others of our household, and see Jesus with us and this world, bringing new life and hope and joy for all. Emmaus is wherever you are, and Jesus, is with us. It is so…