This hymn text is based on the Gospel lesson from Luke for today in which the disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus, encountering a stranger whom they do not recognize as Jesus, and whom they tell of the events of the prior weekend of Jesus’ execution. Only later do they realize this figure who walked with them was Jesus, and they return to Jerusalem proclaiming His resurrection. Herman Stuempfle (1923-2007), an ELCA pastor and president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, wrote this hymn text:
Who are you who walk in sorrow down Emmaus’ barren road, Hearts distraught and hope defeated bent beneath grief’s crushing load? Nameless mourners, we will join you, we who also mourn our dead; we have stood by graves unyielding, eaten death’s bare, bitter bread.
In the first stanza, Stuempfle helps us get into the mind of those confused disciples. It is often easy for us—who know the ending of the story—to feel smugly prescient in the story. Here we remember that we are of the same character as these disciples and in need of the same salvation. The disciples, though, invited the stranger to “stay with us,” for the night would soon arrive. Conventions of hospitality of the time required the Hebrews to host travelers at night, for the roads could be treacherous. The writer of music notes felt a bit of that when, after having visited Bethlehem and had a great meal at a Palestinian Christian compound, we departed after dark through the dim streets of the West Bank, replete with boarded up houses, iron gates, and garbage-littered sidewalks, on the way back to the safety of Jerusalem. We had the utmost of modern security measures, but the thought of danger was not far off.
Who is this who joins our journey, walking with us stride by stride? Unknown Stranger, can You fathom Depths of grief for one who died? Then the wonder! When we told You How our dreams to dust have turned, Then You opened wide the Scriptures Till our hearts within us burned.
This is a bit of incarnational theology—Jesus is fully human and fully divine. As fully human, He walks with us “stride by stride” and understands our griefs. His sympathy proceeds from His knowing the life of a human being with its disappointments and sadnesses. According to the Gospel narrative, the disciples did not recognize Jesus until he “broke bread.” We mustn’t confuse these “disciples” with “apostles,” as the text makes lucidly clear that these are not one of the Eleven. Christ is revealed to these disciples through the “breaking of bread,” just as He still comes to us in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Who are You? Our hearts are opened in the breaking of the bread—Christ the victim, now the victor Living, risen from the dead! Great companion on our journey, Still surprise us with Your grace! Make each day a new Emmaus; On our hearts Your image trace!
The hymn writer uses the word “surprise”—this is not a word frequently used in hymnwriting. Yet, it captures the sense of those hapless disciples sadly trudging down the Emmaus road. They didn’t fully believe the story of the resurrection and were surprised finally to recognize Jesus. There are times when likewise we don’t recognize Jesus. Do we realize He is truly present where “two or three are gathered together in My name?” If we did, wouldn’t we want to attend church as often as we can? Do we see Jesus in our forgiveness of others or in their forgiveness of us? If we did, perhaps we would see more forgiveness all around. Do we recognize Jesus in good works done for others, or to us? Probably we have all failed at some point. But we rejoice in the resurrection made apparent on the road to Emmaus, singing, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Is the Easter hymn we sing! Take our life, our joy, our worship as the gift of love we bring. You have formed us all one people called from every land and race. Make the Church Your servant body, sent to share Your healing grace.”