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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Four Pilgrim Addresses in Santiago: 4 Pilgrimage, Recognition and Hope

Who doesn’t love the Emmaus Road story, to my mind the most perfectly crafted of all the resurrection narratives? So typical of St Luke - beautifully paced, immaculately structured, full of the gracefulness and warmth and humanity we love him for.

It’s a story that was especially linked to the Compostela Pilgrimage in the middle ages. You can see it in sculpture at two of the historic starting points in France, the Cathedral of Saint Trophime in Arles, and at Vézelay. I mentioned the twelfth century cloister at Santo Domingo de Silos the other day, the Benedictine community close to the Camino best known for its singing of Gregorian chant. I’ve never forgotten the cloister on two storeys, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture and sculpture. Each corner of the cloister has a depiction of the resurrection. You have the three Marys at the empty tomb, being addressed by the angel. You have the Day of Pentecost. You have an amazingly beautiful image of the risen Jesus appearing to doubting Thomas. And opposite him you find the Emmaus Road. As I said before, it shows Jesus dressed as a Compostela pilgrim complete with scallop shell. Perhaps this goes back to St Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the story. Where the disciples ask Jesus if he is a stranger, the Latin has the word peregrinus, pilgrim. A medieval sermon makes the same point: “Our Lord Jesus Christ himself returning from Jerusalem after his resurrection from the dead, appeared first as a pilgrim”.

I mentioned yesterday that I was in London preaching Holy Week and that I did my Stations of the Cross at Don McCullin’s shattering exhibition at the Tate. On Good Friday, after I’d preached at Southwark Cathedral, my wife and I spent the afternoon at the National Gallery looking at Renaissance crucifixion scenes. I suggested we end by preparing for Easter. So we went to gaze on the Caravaggio painting of the Supper at Emmaus. He captures the scene just as the risen Jesus is making himself known in the breaking of the bread. The disciples leap up in amazement at this epiphany, this recognition scene, one of them gesticulating wildly and hitting a bowl of fruit that’s about to topple off the table right into our own space. Jesus is not as you expect to see him in religious art, this long-haired, clean-shaven good-looking young man. Which only makes the painting all the more memorable.

We’ve seen how in St Luke, Jesus is the great traveller. He is born in the middle of a journey, our unique glimpse of his childhood involves a journey and he is introduced to us as an adult being driven out on a journey into the desert. Luke ends with a journey too, as in his final scene, Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24.50). In this third Gospel, he is always on the move. “Such a fast god” said R S Thomas in the poem we heard yesterday. 

But the journey of the Emmaus Road stands as a travel narrative in its own right. This particular journey makes it, I think, the archetypal resurrection narrative of them all, at least as we read it out of our own times so distant from the events themselves. For it says to us that resurrection is not a past event in the aorist tense but a reality in our present experience. It’s in the perfect tense, so to speak, a past event with present and future consequences. For this risen Christ is our living contemporary, always travelling with us, always looking for our hearts to burn within us as we journey with him on the road.

The two disconsolate disciples schlepping back home, joined by unknown stranger; their conversation on the road, the supper at which guest turns host, the familiar action of bread blessed and broken, the moment of recognition, the excited return to the city to tell the others – it is exquisitely told.  You feel that it is all utterly authentic, St Luke’s Easter: there is not a false note anywhere.  In its intimacy and naturalness, its loving portrayal of the characters in the story is as masterful as Caravaggio. This recognition scene strikes us as entirely believable.  We are there: it is happening before our eyes.  Indeed, so vivid is it that we want to go beyond the sense of watching a drama happening to other people and say: truly this is happening to us

This recognition story of broken bread, burning hearts and opened eyes is full of echoes.  We saw on the first evening how near the beginning of the Gospel is a story about another journey from Jerusalem, like the Emmaus Road: two people once again going home at Passover time.  Mary and Joseph think that the child Jesus is with them, but he is not, and when they realise this, they hurry back to the city.  The Emmaus two think Jesus is not with them, though we know he is; and when they recognise him they too hurry back.  When his parents find Jesus in the temple, he tells them about what was necessary:  how he must be about his Father’s business; and the risen Christ also speaks about what was necessary, how the Messiah had to suffer before entering his glory. Christ incognito, absent yet present, hidden yet disclosed, abased yet glorified, unknown yet well-known – these are St Luke’s themes.  And, says today’s story, when the risen Christ comes to us in the word of the scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread, as our fellow-traveller and as our cherished guest, there is recognition.  Our eyes are opened.  There is joy. 

But take another, more ancient echo in the story.  If Luke’s gospel is a travel narrative, it is also a story full of eating and drinking.  Much of Jesus’ teaching and many of his key encounters take place at the meal table.  He famously eats with tax-gatherers and sinners.  It’s at the last supper that he teaches his disciples about the nature of service, and what the giving of his own body and blood will mean.  Does this recall how it was through a first supper that the human race was banished from paradise?  In Genesis it was when the man and the woman took the forbidden fruit that ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’.  At that primordial meal, two human beings came to a recognition that led to death.  At the Emmaus meal, by contrast, two people come to a recognition that leads to life.  ‘Their eyes were opened and they recognised him’ says Luke; as if to say: here, at Easter, with the first supper of the first day of the week, here is a new beginning.  Humanity’s long exile is over.  The way back to Eden is open at last, and forever.  The human race is remade.  There is a new world, a new beginning, a new creation, a new joy, a new hope.

I’ve suggested that for Luke, Jesus is God’s Pilgrim, God’s traveller, the one who comes to us as the bearer of his mystery and love here among us humans. In him, the fellow-traveller has become our literal companion because he breaks bread with us. It’s Matthew, now Luke, who takes up Isaiah’s promise of Immanuel, “God with us”, in his coming and in his final commission where he promises to be with us “to the end of the age”. But Luke’s theology is just as much about the abiding presence of the incarnate and risen Lord. You could say that in him the psalmist’s celebration of God’s presence is materially fulfilled in flesh and blood: “thou art about my path and about my bed; if I climb up into heaven thou art there; if I go down to hell thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there also shall thy hand lead me; and thy right hand shall hold me”. Whatever our journeys – up, down, far or near, he is alongside us as our fellow-traveller.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, 
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. 
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, 
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Whatever form our own Emmaus pilgrimage takes, he is there. And St Luke wants us to know that the Ascension does not put an end to this, as if the empty sky that has taken him betokens a kind of real absence. On the contrary, as the Vézelay tympanum of Pentecost assures us, it is only so that he can be alongside us in a more intimate, more profound way.


As we come to the end of our time on the Camino, we want to gather up our experiences, reflections, thoughts of a week that we shall remember for a long time to come. Maybe the Emmaus Road is the perfect gathering-up story in two important ways.

First, because of how it links the themes of memory, disclosure and recognition. I think St Luke consciously intends the story to function as a summation of everything that the Gospel has been about. The narrative is very careful to pick up the significance of the past. The two disciples rehearse the passion narrative in detail (so skilfully introduced by the question, “Are you the only stranger (or pilgrim) in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”), share their messianic hope that he would be “the one to redeem Israel” and go on to tell of the empty tomb. Jesus responds by setting the core of this primitive credo, as it looks to me to be, in a larger context. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And out of the Hebrew Bible, “Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures”.

Memory, and the first inklings of disclosure and recognition that will be consummated at table and the breaking of the bread. “Did not our hearts burn within us?” What’s the criterion of a good pilgrimage? Not that we etherealise at every step on the way. (That’s unlikely if we are taking the spiritual and physical “work” of pilgrimage seriously with its challenges and ordeals.) No, I think that what matters and has lasting value has to do with interpretation and meanings. What made the Emmaus Road unforgettable and life-changing was that the disciples’ perceptions were permanently transformed. This was because they were accompanied by someone who understood both the journey itself and the human beings who were making it.

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress there is a key stopping point early on. This is the House of the Interpreter where pilgrims are shown the road ahead, what it will mean and how to navigate it safely. All good pilgrimage needs reliable interpreters. In the twelfth century a Frenchman named Aimery Picaud wrote a Guide for the Pilgrim to Santiago that no traveller could afford to be without, not only because it offered advice on finding your way across difficult or dangerous roads and where to stay, but also because it provided spiritual interpretation and sustenance. I hope that for all of us pilgrims here today, this place has been something of a House of Interpretation too. Because it’s not only the experience but the meanings that matter. The story we need to tell about our pilgrimage is not simply that we went to Santiago but, here is what it’s meant to us. Which takes us back to “bearing witness” as we saw yesterday in the blind man whose life was changed on the road and who glorified God. On this walk too, eyes are opened. Which is why, perhaps, the Emmaus story is so important for St Luke because, as he seems to have been saying all through the gospel, it’s only as we walk the road in faith that disclosures happen, meanings are revealed and our hearts burn within us. Jesus walks. We walk. Life is changed. Solvitur ambulando. 

The Emmaus Road is a “gathering-up” story secondly because of how the story concludes. “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.” As I said the other day, this is the bit we tend to miss when we talk about pilgrimage. But it’s essential if we’re to see the journey as a whole. We need to remember that when we arrive at our pilgrimage destination, we have only completed half of the journey. The spirituality of the return home is as important as that of setting out in the first place.

Every mountaineer knows this. Getting to the summit is hard enough. But getting down off the mountain safely is even harder. More climbing accidents happen on the way down than the way up. Sometimes it’s the different psychology of the descent, coloured by false reassurance because we made it up in the first place. More usually it’s that descent is actually more risky because you can’t as easily test the ground ahead or see where you are putting your feet. Which I think is a metaphor of how we come back from what we might call life’s peak experiences. In Peter Matthiesen’s marvellous book The Snow Leopard, he talks about how careful he needs to be when going back into everyday life after the rarified experience of being in the high Himalaya for many days. It’s important, he says, not to tear the delicate gossamer of life by re-entering too brutally, in too much of a hurry. We need to take time for the return journey and make it attentively.

And being attentive is to understand that returning is not at all simply to put your outward journey into reverse. It may look like it - the outward features of the Emmaus Road had not changed since the disciples left Jerusalem a few hours before. Except that it was dark now, and any journey by night would have been ten times more risky. Which itself tells you that what had changed was the people making that journey - no longer sad and lonely and afraid, but animated by what they had experienced, confident, hope-filled, brought back to life because of that transforming moment of disclosure and recognition. So it was a journey back to a place that was not the same as their original starting point. They were finding their end in their beginning and knowing the place for the first time, in T. S. Eliot’s language. And that made it a different journey altogether. You cannot step into the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Our journey home tomorrow is to continue the pilgrimage we began when we travelled  out here. We have every reason to hope and believe that what we might call ordinary time will look different because of what we have experienced together on pilgrimage. It has the potential to change everything. 

So this return journey from Emmaus to Jerusalem is by no means to leave behind the place of heart-burning disclosure and recognition. On the contrary. The implication is that the two conclude their pilgrimage by taking with them that experience, going back to find an old, familiar place now charged with a wholly new radiance because of what they experienced when they walked with that unknown Stranger-Pilgrim and gave him hospitality. The transformation that began on the road has become a daily fact of Easter life. This is the point of the story. The gospel could only ever have ended here – and begun here. Es regreso es la salida they say here about going home. The return is the departure. It’s a trope of pilgrim-talk but it’s a spiritual truth nevertheless. The Camino doesn’t end at Santiago. It begins here.

The disciples’ return to Jerusalem after they had encountered the risen Jesus is exactly the note on which St Luke needs to end. A lesser writer would have stopped at Emmaus with the ecstasy and the tears and the opened eyes and the broken bread. But Luke needs to take us back to Jerusalem, the holy city that was the goal of the long travel narrative in the second part of the gospel, and where his story began at the very outset with Zechariah the priest in the temple and the promised birth of the forerunner John the Baptist. Luke needs the story to end in precisely the same place, with the disciples in Jerusalem where “they were continually in the temple blessing God”. So skilfully has this gospel of the journey been constructed.

The temple is, I think, Luke’s symbol and metaphor of Matthew’s Immanuel, “God with us”. We’ve seen how in Solomon’s prayer of dedication, it dominates the inner spiritual landscape of worshippers even when they are far away, in exile even. They are to “pray towards” it, make the inward pilgrimage to it at times of joy and thankfulness, grief and crisis. This is what we find in today’s other texts. The beautiful psalm of ascents would have been sung on pilgrimage to the holy place which it celebrates as the fulfilment of every pilgrim’s hungers and longings. In the vision of Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord” has become an eschatological sign of God’s presence and peace reigning over the world, a pilgrim destination for all nations that will stream towards it so that they may learn his ways and walk in his paths. We can assume that texts like these would have informed St Luke as he writes about the temple and carefully places Jesus and his followers there at key moments in the unfolding story of redemption. For the temple is a symbol of what Jesus himself is, a place of divine shekinah where the God who is present to his creation manifests himself explicitly to all who seek him, a theology that St John will develop in due course when he elaborates on the imagery of the temple and says that in Jesus, “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”.

I return to the theme of hope. This seems to me to be a major aspect of every pilgrimage, the sense that something worthwhile will come out of it that will make the world a better place, make us better people. The Jarrow March (wickedly parodied by Nigel Farage’s Brexit walkers) was an attempt not only to draw attention to poverty and unemployment in North East England, but to press for a better future for the marchers and the deprived communities they represented. The same is true of the children and young people who are coming out on to the world’s streets to protest about our lack of will in relation to climate change and to express a vision and a hope for a good and safe future for the planet that they will inherit from us. And of the million who thronged central London in March to campaign for a people’s vote in relation to Brexit. And of the Extinction Rebellion protests that brought parts of London to a halt while I was there in Holy Week and succeeded in getting their message into the headlines. All these are doing more than bearing witness to the problems and challenges that face us. They are also bearing witness to the possibility of change, to the expectation that in key respects, the future must not be the same as the past but different and better. This is what we call hope.

I don’t suppose anyone sets out on a pilgrimage without nursing the hope that things will change because of it. This is a theme explored in depth by Nancy Louise Frey in her book about the Camino that I mentioned before. An important part of her fieldwork was asking pilgrims what hopes they had set out with, how the pilgrimage delivered on those expectations (or failed to), 
and with what sense of transformation and renewal they returned home. As Christian ministers we are all “dealers in hope” as Napoleon put it. As I come to the end of my seventh decade, I don’t think I have ever seen my country at such a low point when it comes to hope. We all have our responses to this crisis in hope. But what I am more and more clear about is that hope needs to be a central theme in the church’s witness to and living out the Christian faith. It is stating the obvious to point to the way human hopes and hungers were utterly transformed by the Christian gospel. But it’s true. And at the heart of it stands the empty tomb and the encounters with the risen Jesus that we are reading about and celebrating during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Which is why I wanted to end where Luke does. Emmaus is, as we’ve seen, the Easter road of disclosure, recognition and transformation. And Luke’s point in telling the story is that it is not simply some reminiscence of what took place on a glowing but far-off Easter evening two thousand years ago. It represents what is always happening in human life, in our life. As the story is told, Emmaus happens over the few hours it takes to walk there from Jerusalem, share a meal, and walk back. But I see in it an immense metaphor of our life’s journey, the months and years and decades it takes for our eyes to be opened, for resurrection to sink in, become part of us, central to our identity as an Easter people for whom alleluia is our song.

Emmaus is our life-journey and our life-task. When we are on that road, we know we are on the pilgrimage we walk not only with Jesus but in him, for he himself is that true and living way, as he says to the disciples in the upper room. And when our identity is being established as peregrinos, people who negotiate life as pilgrims, we are bound to find ourselves not only infused with resurrection hope and bearing witness to it, but bringing hope to others, bringing it to the worlds through which our own Emmaus path leads us. “Then they told what had happened on the road” says the evangelist, “and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”.

The final word of the Emmaus story is artos, bread. That tells us something about Luke’s mind. The breaking of the bread and the disclosure it brings says that for him the eucharistic life makes resurrection real and life-changing. Eucharist means “gratitude”. To live out of thankfulness, eucharistically, makes all the difference. We saw on the first night how the offering of life is one of the goals of pilgrimage. To practise self-offering as our thankful response to God’s goodness and mercy is always the outcome of eucharist. And when we link it to the sacramental transformation of the eucharist and how it looks forward to the eschatological transformation of all things into God’s new creation, we see that the eucharistic life is to bring hope not only for ourselves but for the world.

The Lord’s Prayer came up in my reflection on pilgrimage and suffering.  In that prayer, the petition “give us this day our daily bread”, artos epiousios, really means, according to most of the scholars, “bread for tomorrow”. That links it directly to the coming of the kingdom which is what the prayer is fundamentally about, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven as we pray in the preceding clause. I said yesterday that the petition “lead us not into temptation” is better translated “do not bring us to the time of trial”, peirasmos. In the New Testament, that word has connotations of the eschatological trial, the ordeals of the last days before the kingdom breaks in. “Happy are those who endure peirasmos because having been approved, they will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” says the Letter of James (1.12). I’m persuaded that in the Lord’s Prayer, “daily bread” is bread to sustain us on the journeys of tomorrow, equip us for their trials and ordeals. It’s pilgrims’ bread, the manna in the wilderness that not only kept the people alive on their journey, but kept hope alive too.

So pilgrimage that is inspired and shaped by Emmaus with its eucharistic “bread for tomorrow” turns out to be future-pointed by its very nature. Hope and expectation belong at its heart. If you don’t have hope, why go on pilgrimage? Which puts to us the question, on this last full day of our week here in Santiago, what hopes we nurture as we contemplate the return journey, and how could they inform our own lives and those of our churches? “New lamps be lit, new tasks begun” says Bishop George Bell’s great hymn about Easter and the coming kingdom and “love’s unconquerable might”.

Christ through all ages is the same: 
place the same hope in his great name, 
with the same faith his word proclaim.

Let me end with St Augustine. He says: “the entire life of a good Christian is an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.” Hope will be emptied in delight. This is the essence of pilgrimage. Catherine of Siena famously said, “All the way to heaven, is heaven”. This is why we are here. This is how we shall return home. My prayer for all of you with whom it’s been such a privilege to share these few days together on pilgrimage is that the risen Christ of the Emmaus Road will always travel by your side, and that the God of hope will be with  you all till travelling days are done.

Santiago, 16 May 2019

Psalm 84, Isaiah 2.1-5, Luke 24.13-35

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these addresses with the wider world away from #LlandaffinSantiago An inspirational read, working with scripture in such an illuminating way. After a travel ban that will have lasted a year when complete, due to a course of minor surgical procedures, open wounds etc, my personal pilgrimage experience, stuck in the same locality resonates with much you have spoken of this week. In hope, I am now starting to wonder where my next pilgrim destination might be when healing permits me to move on. A journey that will be for sure about the offering of life restored, hopeful and eucharistic all the way. God bless you and your continuing ministry of interpretation and encouragement!