Emmaus: Seeing with the Eyes of Faith
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. April 26, 2020
Dear brothers and sisters:
Easter has come and gone: we have rung the bells, sung the alleluias, eaten the chocolates – apparently, the Easter Bunny is still considered an essential worker - but have we really experienced the Resurrection? In this time of pandemic, where do we meet the Risen Lord? Have we heard him call us by name, like Mary Magdalene? Have we touched his wounds, felt his risen presence, like Thomas? Maybe we have – but for many of us, especially this year, it may well still all very theoretical, not quite real. Our sadness has not yet been converted into joy.
On this 3rd Sunday of Easter, today’s Gospel also begins in a space of sadness and confusion. On the very day of the Resurrection, two disciples of Jesus are walking away from Jerusalem, in the direction of an obscure village named Emmaus. Although early reports about rolled-away stones, empty tombs, and visions of angels are circulating, they cannot quite believe them. They are sad and despondent; they are running away.
It is easy to relate to these disciples. All around us, we see signs of death. Those dying of Covid-19, of course; but also the vulnerable seniors in our nursing homes and CHSLDs, dying slowly of neglect and dehydration, often dying alone; and as the 23 candles lit on the altar today remind us so painfully, those who die because of senseless and random violence, as in the massacre that has devastated our friends in Nova Scotia. When faced with such pain, we also would like to run away, to escape into an alternative universe, to wish things could just “go back to normal”.
But as these sad disciples walk on this unknown path, a stranger appears. He plays dumb, pretends to know nothing of what has happened, gives them a chance to vent their doubts and fears and disappointments. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything exceptional about him. But eventually, something begins to stir in them – a sense of connection, a growth in insight. So when this stranger is about to continue his journey, they urge him to stay, to come in and share their meal. Only as he breaks the bread – reminiscent of that gesture they had seen Jesus perform so many times before – do they finally awaken, realize who he is. They have no chance to cling to the experience, as he vanishes from their sight. Yet at once, everything has become clear. Immediately they turn around, head straight back to Jerusalem – the same place they were running away from just a few hours before – and share their encounter with the Risen Lord: how their hearts burned within them as he walked beside them, opened the Scriptures, and broke the bread.
It is an experience captured beautifully by Malcolm Guite, in his sonnet Emmaus 2:We thought that everything was lost and gone, Disaster on disaster overtook us The night we left our Jesus all alone And we were scattered, and our faith forsook us. But oh, that foul Friday proved far worse, For we had hoped that he had been the one, Till crucifixion proved he was a curse, And on the cross our hopes were all undone. Oh foolish, foolish heart, why do you grieve? Here is good news and comfort to your soul: Open your mind to scripture and believe He bore the curse for you to make you whole The living God was numbered with the dead That He might bring you Life in broken bread.
Last Wednesday evening, I participated in a Christian meditation group on Zoom, led by my good friend Fr. Paul Geraghty. After spending twenty minutes in silent meditation, we spoke of many things, including the difference between “enlightenment” – that one-off performance when God suddenly shines a bright light upon you – and “awakening” – that slow, gradual realization that God is already present within you, at work in all of your most ordinary, everyday experience. He suggested that for most of us, spiritual growth is rooted in this slow process, this gradual awakening to a God who, whether we realize it at the time or not, is always walking beside us, guiding our steps, closer to us than we are to our own selves. He then shared with me this excerpt of an article in the British journal The Tablet:
“The gift of true seeing has always been at the heart of Christianity. This is what happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus…Before the risen Christ’s gaze all falsehood melts away…No wonder their hearts burned within them! And then before their eyes, the fierce invincibility and utter vulnerability of Jesus, the Word made Flesh, were made known in a fistful of bread on the rough surface of a stained table in a country inn.”
It is tempting, at a time like this, to be asking God to “intervene”, to somehow magically “stop” the pandemic in its tracks, to make this whole problem disappear. I’m not saying God cannot do that, but extraordinary manifestations of power are not the way God works typically. Rather, God works through things which at first glance seem very ordinary: a chance encounter with a stranger, leading to a conversation, a debate, a sense of human connection, the desire to share a meal. A gradual force of attraction, expressed in simple things and gestures: bread, wine, gathering, breaking. Those are the words which, in this gospel account, describe this process of recognition, of a new vision that is the true Easter experience.
Is this not also the experience that we need? To have our hearts burn within us? To feel truly alive again? To belong to a community with whom we can share both the struggles of the journey, and the joys of new discovery? What is it that gets in the way? What clouds our vision and blocks our sight?
The problem, in many ways, is that we do not see things as they are. Rather, we see them as we are. We can get so blocked by our own problems, by the problems of the world around us, by our self-preoccupation. Yet every so often, there is an inbreaking of grace, a moment of recognition, what the disciples on the road refer to as a “burning in the heart” – which is not to be confused with heartburn! The irony, Fr. Paul suggests, is that “nothing removes us from a profound sense of our deepest identity more than our preoccupation with self. We are least ourselves when we are focused on ourselves. We are most ourselves when we are turned towards the other.”
This is our challenge: to allow our vision to be clarified, to allow the transformation that is love to be the dynamic at work at the heart of our life. We need to learn, as did the disciples of Emmaus, to recognize Jesus in the ordinary circumstances of our life, in this extraordinary time of the pandemic. As our own journeys continue, let us renew our desire to listen to the one who walks beside us on the way. May our hearts be touched by the fire of his love. May our vision be transformed, so that we too might learn to see with true sight, through the lenses of Easter faith in the crucified and Risen One. Then, rather than running away from those things in life which frighten and disappoint us, we will be able to turn around and face them with transfigured vision, share this new life with all our companions on the journey.