It’s a well-worn story, the day-long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, hours of plodding along on sore feet by disciples with sore souls. A stranger joins them early, drawing them out of their silent brooding, getting them to talk.
The day is spent in victim mode, as the disciples spill out all that has been done to Jesus and to them. The stranger interjects rays of hope, but they are overshadowed by the gray grief of the grieving men.
And then, at sunset, in a roadside Inn, the stranger breaks bread and vanishes before their eyes. And the disciples suddenly know that Christ had been with them, all that day.
Letting go then, of everything they had known: terror, tears, suffering, death, silence, life’s love lost; sore feet, sore hearts; their need for rest and their fear of the open road at night: letting go of all this, they ran back to Jerusalem.
And they were filled with sunshine, hope, and joy, as they sped along the unseeable road into an unknowable story.
Abundant Acreage, Angus MacLachlan’s new film, traces the footsteps of Emmaus on a small tobacco farm in North Carolina. Death has just been here, ending the life of the father of a middle-aged Ledbetter brother and sister, and the film opens with them arguing in the stubble of an old field, arguing about where to bury his ashes. But the real issue is, what happens now?
Soon, they are joined by three Triggerstrom sons of the former owner of the farm, who are also on a journey to bury their father’s ashes, and to find a final resting place for their own – tow of the sons are dying now.
Over several days, a conversation of sorts develops, punctuated by fears, which emerge as hands thrown up, backs turned, leaving the house for a while, piling things on the lawn in anger, eating lunch, demanding the farm be sold, given back, become a memorial, grow tobacco again.
Truths are whispered: the oldest of the three sons has cancer and their father was an alcoholic; the daughter was adopted; her brother in a drunken stupor did not guard his small son, who drowned.
At night, in their tent, and while washing up in the morning, the three Triggerstrom brothers sing old songs – You Are My Sunshine, etc. At predictable moments the Ledbetter son, a reformed alcoholic and fearfully pious, prays short, staccato prayers.
They all end up in the house, for one night or so. And on the last morning, the daughter and one of the three sons each brings a box of Krispy Kreme Donuts back from town, for an Emmaus breakfast of sorts.
But there is no revelation at this table, nor from conversation among these farm-made, land-furrowed, despairing people, though bits of possibility have broken through. The brothers return to their home, and soon the older two die, and the younger one writes, asking to bury their ashes in the stubble field.
After this wryly comedic interment, the surviving Triggerstrom son departs, dashing the daughter’s hopes of romance. And her brother announces his intention of reburying all these ashes in an old cemetery on the farm, in ‘consecrated ground.’
And it is then that the daughter has her Emmaus moment: she finds her father’s ashes, opens the box, tears the bag open with her teeth and her fingers, and scatters his ashes on the land.
At last, she is free. Having lost everything, the life she knew, the father who adopted her and for whom she cared deeply, all hope of family and a continuing world, she is at last free, to move into the beckoning road of tomorrow, and God knows where it will lead.
She laments to herself that even the name Ledbetter, which will now die out, was never really hers. But she does so with eager, almost joyful determination, scattering those ashes with an abandon, a head-back, arms out, offering of them to the wind and the unknown, to the good earth which the Triggerstroms have reminded her was there long before the tobacco farm.
The good earth, how many bones does it hold? And whose? The long-ago Indians? Before them, the Ice-Age nomads? Dinosaurs? Farm animals? Birds of the field?
What is, vanishes, even before our eyes. What is becomes what was, and we, who walk forever backwards in our minds, remembering what is no longer, must shake those cobwebs off, in order to turn around and be free.
The road back to the joyful place and the retelling is dark, but not lonely because joy is never lonely. It was the daylit road, in which we were dragging everything behind us, that was lonely, even with a companionable stranger.
Each Easter story has its Letting Go commandment.
Letting go is the hardest thing we have ever to do. And it is the thing we all must do in order to walk into Easter’s new life.
What will become of the daughter now? MacLachlan gives us no clue, other than the joyful stride and tossing hair she shows us, as she walks back to the For-Sale farmhouse, leaving her brother the Triggerstrom ashes to carry off to holy ground.
Perhaps all our cemeteries are foolish places, crafted on the false hope that memory can keep the past alive.
What do you really learn from who you were? Jesus asks us this. Compared to who you may become, is who you were and still want tobe, worth a backwards glance? And off he goes, to God knows where, some say with angels lifting him and some say on a cloud of light, and some say, Vanishing, before our very eyes.
We fool ourselves into thinking this is about a place. But the kingdom he proclaims is no place, it is Spirit, blowing here and there on the breezes that cross over the world and even between worlds.
No container, no house, no plowed field, no offspring, no songs and no prayers can root the Spirit anywhere, though in all of these it may, for a time, bring fresh air and sweet hope.
Dylan Thomas describes this Easter jourrney as ‘the sky-stride of the always slain in battle, the happening of saints to their vision, the world winding home.’ (from his poem, Vision and Prayer). Alleluia, then, and Amen.
Image: Amy Ryan, in Abundant Acreage Available, from teaser-trailer.com