Christ in Emmaus: A Theological Reflection

Albrecht Dürer, "Christ in Emmaus" (MSS 406)

There is a scene at the end of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) where two disciples encounter a stranger on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, however, the disciples do not know that the stranger is the risen Christ. When Christ perceives that the two disciples are having difficulty believing in his resurrection, he rebukes their lack of faith in what the Scriptures foretold of him. Then, Luke tells us, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Christ explains to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself. When the disciples arrive at Emmaus, they invite the stranger (Christ) to stay with them. Sitting at the table with the disciples, Christ takes bread, blesses it and breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. At this moment, the disciples immediately recognize him, but then he suddenly vanishes from their sight.

There are a number of issues worthy of exploration in this story. We can look at the divine figure who walks among humanity unnoticed, the issue of hospitality and the treatment of strangers, the perception of Jesus by his disciples, the inability to perceive (despite being presented with truth), or the messianic interpretation of the Scriptures, but Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut doesn’t allow us to dwell on any of these topics. Instead, the focal point of the story according to Dürer’s recreation is the meal scene. Five people are depicted in Dürer’s image: Christ sits at the head of the table breaking the bread; the two disciples from the road sit in the foreground of the image; two more individuals, presumably the hosts, sit behind the disciples. Despite being the guest, Christ plays a leading role in the meal scene by blessing and breaking the bread. Dürer’s portrayal centers in on the resurrected Christ characterized by the divine light and subtle nail-pierced hands. Dürer fixes the gaze of the two disciples on Christ, and thus his image captures the moment that the disciples recognize Christ, just prior to his disappearance from their sight.

The whole story can be understood as emblematic of the life of discipleship. The disciples exhibit faith when they declare that Jesus was a “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). Yet, they also have a perceptible doubt (Luke 24:25). They perform good works by being hospital to the stranger (Luke 24:29). They learn from the Lord (Luke 24:27). After the fact, the disciples reflect on their journey to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Despite all of this, the disciples do not arrive at a complete experience until they encounter Christ in the meal. The sudden disappearance of the Lord is an illustrative reminder of his spiritual presence among the church in Luke’s day, but also among those who walk with Christ today on their own journeys to Emmaus filled with faith, doubt, and everything in between.

By Brandon C. Wason, April 2017

Return to the Dürer, Small Passion Woodcut collection (MSS 406) page.