The sepia-toned glow from a story two millennia distant may cast today’s events in a new light. Such is the brief, but illuminating tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
It is the first Easter and two men are walking the dusty road from Jerusalem to a small village. While traveling, they share their confusion and their disappointment, for the recently crucified Jesus was not the expected One to lead the Jewish people out of Roman bondage. Then, a stranger joins the two. Finding them disgruntled, he explains at great length the teachings of the Jewish prophets, hoping to enlighten his companions. The stranger is the arisen Jesus, but the disciples do not recognize him, even after his elaborate lesson. The three stop at an inn for dinner. Breaking bread, Jesus reveals himself; only then are the astonished disciples’ eyes opened.
The disciples cannot see Jesus when he joins them because their faith has faltered and doubt has crept in its place. Mary Magdalene and the other women who visited the sepulcher Easter morning reported the news that Jesus had risen, but the men believed their words to be idle tales. The confirmation of their faith is denied them by their patriarchal prejudice, which portrays women as untrustworthy witnesses. In their limited vision, the disciples on the road to Emmaus can see only that Jesus is dead and Israel still enslaved. Though Jesus joins them on their journey, they remain lost. They have a geographical destination, but spiritually they are nomads.
Today a secular faith has been lost—the faith the American people once had in their democratic institutions. Faith is among the earliest and greatest of human strengths. In its absence, no merely intellectual effort will suffice to move history forward. Without the confidence in our political leadership that we shared in the days of Eisenhower or Kennedy, we cannot discern, let alone follow, a path to progress. With trust in these presidents, the nation came through the near-apocalypse of the Cuban missile crisis and navigated the perilous times of the early civil rights era.
We remain stranded in the political wilderness of partisanship and irony and sarcasm that passes for politics in the distemper of our times. Until leaders emerge who value integrity above a transient political advantage, our faith stands little chance of being renewed, whereas the disciples’ belief was rekindled when their leader showed them a new way of seeing.