Emmaus, Eucharist, and Emma Thompson: The Hidden Mass in ‘Wit’

‘Wit’ makes me think of what it must have been like for the early Christians to hear Luke’s Emmaus story proclaimed to them in their caves and catacombs.

(photo: Register Files)

“The Eucharist is a mode of being,
which passes from Jesus into each Christian.”
Pope St. John Paul II

“So that's it!” he exclaimed. “What bliss!”
—Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych


The Emmaus Road reading was on Wednesday – an Eastertide favorite! It’s such a gentle tale, and so human. You can feel the downcast spirits of the disillusioned disciples; you share in their enthusiasm as their mysterious companion explains the Scriptures; you marvel with them as Jesus is revealed and then whisked away at their shared meal.

Compared to Mark’s curt summary of this post-resurrection episode, Luke’s retelling is textured, layered, and rich. I’ve always treasured it, even before I was received into the Church. After becoming a Catholic, however, I came to appreciate its Eucharistic nuances – in truth, they jumped off the page at me – and so I’ve come to love Emmaus Road all the more. And it’s my go-to biblical passage when my predominantly evangelical nursing students challenge my sacramental convictions. “How else to understand the Emmaus disciples’ recognition of Jesus at the very moment he breaks bread?” I’ll ask them. “How else to interpret the Lord’s simultaneous bodily disappearance?” You can reject Catholic teaching on the Real Presence, but it’s tough to read Luke’s Emmaus account and not be convinced that he was giving it a Eucharistic gloss.

Here’s the thing, though: The Emmaus Story isn’t just Eucharistic; it’s also richly liturgical – practically a catechetical narrative laying out for us the basic structure of the Mass. There’s the Liturgy of the Word on the road as the shrouded Jesus reviews and unravels the Scriptures for his perplexed followers. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” the disciples comment later on. It’s also noteworthy that they request their anonymous co-traveler to “stay” with them after reaching their destination, which has implications that subsequent events bring to light. “When the disciples on the way to Emmaus asked Jesus to stay ‘with’ them,” writes St. John Paul II, “he responded by giving them a much greater gift….”

After the wayfarers reach their destination in the story, there’s a transition to an implicit Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the disciples unknowingly approach the table with their Master. The incognito risen Christ clearly re-enacts the Last Supper ritual by taking a loaf, blessing and partitioning it, and then offering it to his companions – and he is recognized! It’s him, it’s Jesus in the flesh – but then he bodily disappears, leaving behind his Presence in the distributed Eucharistic species and, correspondingly, in those gathered in his name. It’s this disarming chain of events that cause the Emmaus disciples to rush back to Jerusalem and make their report to Peter and the other Apostles. “Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way,” writes Luke, “and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

By itself, this very Catholic take on Luke’s Emmaus Road account isn’t enough to convince my skeptical students of Eucharistic realities, but it gets them thinking. It gets them thinking about how Jesus makes good on his promise to be with us “always, until the end of the age” (Mt. 28.20). Is it just a spiritual “be with us” or is it more substantive, more tangible? Even aside from personal conversations about Eucharistic Presence that I might have with my more curious students, I weave this critical question of how Jesus remains with us throughout all our discussions of nursing care. I reference Matthew 25 quite a bit, and the Lord’s very explicit declaration that we care for him – truly, literally – when we care for the sick. Plus, there’s the idea that we ourselves become “little Christs” to the degree that we’re conformed to Jesus, take up our crosses, and live sacrificially – and becoming little Christs ought to be our top priority. “The whole purpose of becoming a Christian,” writes C.S. Lewis, “is simply nothing else.”

Yet the incarnational dimensions of this reality and its Eucharistic associations are quite tricky to get across ecumenically. I am, after all, teaching evangelical students at an evangelical college. That’s why I fall back on the movie Wit (2001), which I show my students every year at the beginning of their medical-surgical nursing course. It’s a remarkable movie adaptation of what is itself a remarkable, Pulitzer-winning play by Margaret Edson (1999).

The play’s central character is Professor Vivian Bearing (brilliantly played by Emma Thompson in the film), an English scholar who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer, Vivian is thrown into the disorienting world of medicine and healthcare delivery, and the drama traces her disturbing, Dantesque journey. On the surface, the film version is a marvelous and memorable introduction for my entry-level nursing students to the dos and don’ts of caring for the sick. As we watch Vivian navigate the hospital’s clinical turf in search of healing and wholeness (physical, emotional, spiritual), we’re provided with numerous object lessons about what nurses should avoid – mock sympathy, pretend concern, self-absorption – as well as depictions of behaviors worth emulating – namely, humility, compassion, and caritas.

But that’s only the surface level. Edson’s play has multiple, intertwining themes, not the least of which is a subtle Christocentric one. So, when I watch Wit with my students, I ask them at the end where they saw Jesus in the film. Awkward silence, puzzled glances – Jesus? In the film? Eventually someone will venture a hand up and suggest the Vivian’s primary nurse, Susie, seems to act in a Christlike way.

“Like when?” I ask.  

“Like when she shares the popsicle with her?” comes the tentative reply.

Spot on – at least that’s what I think. It comes at a late stage in Vivian’s medical trek after she summons Susie to her side for consolation and support. The nurse responds readily with a compassionate presence, stroking her patient’s shoulder while uttering gentle words of reassurance – not false reassurance, but reassurance in the spirt of Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well.” Then, seemingly randomly, Susie offers a popsicle and Vivian accepts. It’s a human gesture of generosity, but, like the Emmaus scene of bread-breaking, this simple exchange takes on an unmistakable Eucharistic character.

Susie is like a congregation offering up her gift, and then Vivian (vivo, “life”) breaks apart the gift and presents part of it back to Susie. Thus, just like at Mass, there’s a pervasive Christ Presence in this scene – Christ present in the congregation and priest substitutes, Christ present in the would-be sacramental offering, and Christ present in the altar – which in Wit is represented by the acute care setting, the hospital bed, the dire diagnosis.

I see another liturgical parallel a couple scenes later – this time a Liturgy of the Word stand-in. It comes near the end of the film when Vivian, now dying, is visited by her former tutor and mentor, Professor Ashford. In her debilitated state, Vivian cannot engage in conversation, and she shoos away Ashford’s offer to recite one of Donne’s poetic puzzles. Instead, Ashford offers a reading from a children’s book – The Runaway Bunny (1942) by Margaret Wise Brown – which brings solace and comfort to her distressed friend. It’s an incarnational reading, for Professor Ashford suffuses the words of the text with empathy, wonder, and love. “Time to go,” she murmurs prophetically as she closes the book, and then follows up with a prayerful commendation: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The fact that these two liturgical moments – one a sacramental action, and the other a verbal proclamation – are in reverse order relative to the order of the Mass is itself significant. The play’s drama, after all, is focused on words – their acquisition, their use, and their meaning. Consequently, it makes sense that the order of the play’s quasi-liturgy is reversed, with the popsicle scene representing a Eucharistic encounter that in turn allows for Vivian’s deeply affective receptivity to Ashford’s enunciations – grace, in other words. It’s as if Edson’s Wit is directing us to the implications of our Eucharistic conformity to Christ; that our words themselves, along with our concomitant dispositions and actions, are crucial emanations of the divine bread we consume.

All this is my ulterior motive in screening Wit every year for my students: to tentatively introduce them to the clinical potentialities of Real Presence, liturgy, and sacrament. For those of us already well familiar with such ideas, particularly in the Emmaus Road story, maybe it’s worth a screening as well. It can foster a fresh appreciation of the subtle ways Jesus appears to us in the day to day, not to mention how his feeding us with himself at Mass must spill over into how we live our lives, how we treat our neighbors. All I know is that watching Wit every year with my students is predictably a spiritual jostle. It makes me think of what it must’ve been like for the early Christians to hear Luke’s Emmaus story proclaimed to them in their caves and catacombs, and how it must have affected their reception of our Lord in Word and sacrament.

How does it affect mine?