Spiritual Reflection – Epiphany
They said to each other, “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 NRSV)
The story of the ‘Road to Emmaus’, recorded only in the Gospel of Luke, is probably one of the most well known stories in the Bible. It describes a meeting that takes place between two disciples of Jesus and the risen Jesus himself, as the two disciples are making their way from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus, which was located 10-12 kilometres from Jerusalem.
Luke tells us that the disciples initially don’t recognise their travelling companion as Jesus. This could be suggesting there is something different about the physical appearance of the resurrection body of Jesus, but it is likely just Luke’s way of making the point that the disciples still don’t have the insight to understand the connection between suffering and messiahship. Even though Jesus had already told his disciples that he would suffer and die, and then on the third day rise again, they had not grasped what he was saying; they could not believe that this would happen to the Messiah.
It is only in the breaking of the bread during dinner – when Jesus takes the bread and blesses and breaks it as he had done so many times previously – that the two disciples receive insight and finally recognise Jesus. It’s at that point they say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” And immediately the two rush back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ other disciples about their experience.
We might describe this moment as an ‘epiphany’ – a moment of sudden and great revelation, or realisation. People who become Christians sometimes talk of epiphanies in their own lives that lead them to the choice of becoming disciples of Jesus.
My own earliest recollection of an epiphany came when I was a young boy of seven or eight. We had a raffle at my primary school and the prize was a blue budgerigar. I desperately wanted to win that “budgie” and I remember praying earnestly to God that he would let me win the raffle, and I did! And it struck me in that moment that God did actually listen to me when I prayed, and I remember having such a strong feeling of God being present with me, and that feeling has never left me, even though I have had times in my life when I “wandered away” from Him.
Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, believed there were four types of epiphany experience that could lead people to decide to become disciples of Jesus:
- In some people, there is a deep and mysterious experience at the very heart of their being. A touch of God. An encounter with spiritual reality that actualises a deep desire to penetrate further into what has been so momentarily glimpsed. Sometimes this happens very early in life and generates a lifelong seeking after God that is not displaced by periods of indifference or even by substantial failings. Having tasted the goodness of God—be it ever so briefly—nothing else fully satisfies. (I would suggest my own experience falls into this category.)
- In other people, an epiphany occurs when a word—spoken by another person or proclaimed in the church or encountered in reading—generates a resonance deep inside that enables them to recognise their spiritual identity and to take steps to live in accordance with what they have heard. (This was what the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus experienced when Jesus was opening the Scriptures to them.)
- Sometimes the spark is struck by the example of another person’s life, whether it be the result of a personal encounter or through reading. Seeing how someone else lives inspires a desire to follow their example as a way to attaining their own deepest personal fulfilment.
- Finally, for some people it is only when disaster strikes and their life is in ruins that they discover the possibility of living differently. When all the cherished projects that have long preoccupied them fall away, they discover something about themselves which has long been latent and now leads them into a new future.
As we make our own spiritual journey, Jesus will almost certainly appear in a guise that we do not immediately penetrate and at a moment that we do not expect. That epiphany will fill us with delight and energy and change the course of our life.