The Road to Emmaus is a story contained in the Gospel of Luke that takes place just three days after the Resurrection of Jesus. Two followers of Christ are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They are discussing all that had taken place, from Jesus being handed over to the chief priests, His condemnation to death, His crucifixion, how the stone at His tomb had been found rolled away and of the angels who appeared and announced to the women, “He is alive!” While they were talking, Jesus draws near and begins walking with them. It says they did not recognize Him. When He asks of them what it is they are conversing about, they reply, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days? And as Jesus so masterfully does many times in the Gospels, He replies to their question with his own question: “What things?”
The two men take the time to give Jesus the summary of what has taken place. After explaining everything Jesus asks them “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And from that moment forward, He speaks of the words of Moses and the prophets and interprets to those on the way all the things in the scriptures which referred to Him, including these very events which had just occurred.
When they draw near to the village of Emmaus, Jesus looks as if He is going to continue on elsewhere, but His followers urge Him to stay with them. He sits at table with them, takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize Him; and he vanishes from their sight. This encounter propels them to immediately get up from the table and travel seven miles back to Jerusalem. There they find the eleven disciples of Jesus and they proceed to tell them what they had just seen. They explain to them everything that happened on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Ever since I heard this story recounted in the liturgy last Sunday, the words “He had been made known to them in the breaking…” have echoed in my head and heart. It seems to me in our days of living in the midst of a global pandemic, most everything is breaking, as it must have seemed to the followers of Christ after His crucifixion. Almost all of the foundations on which we have built the structure and meaning in our lives have crumbled underneath a real and ever present threat to the health of the world. It is utterly unbelievable and unreal. How quickly it has all come falling down. The implications are life changing and mind blowing.
In the earliest days of the stay at home orders I found myself scattered, experiencing difficulty in focusing with a sense of God’s presence evading me. I perceived myself to be walking perilously close to the edge of mental breakdown. This is something that is not unfamiliar to me and with experience I have better learned to recognize its closeness. What I swiftly realized is that which was propelling me closest to danger was more about others’ suffering than my own. Watching the stories of how families were separated from their hospitalized loved ones was gut-wrenching and worse yet was hearing of those dying alone. Suddenly, nurses and doctors who normally are responsible for attending to the physical health of patients were now having to fill in and provide some kind of emotional and spiritual support to both the dying and their families. And all the while, they are in the midst of suffering their own kind of hell, encountering unprecedented traumatic experiences each and every day.
The economic fallout, though somewhat affecting me personally, was put into perspective real quick when a cherished friend confided in me that her living situation had been radically altered. Previously all of the siblings had been combining their salaries to keep their household of four young adults as well as their elderly parents afloat. Now with business closures, reduced hours and unemployment, they were cumulatively living on one salary among the four working members. When she told me the six of them were only able to eat one meal per day I thought my heart was going to break into two. I grappled mightily with this revelation that poverty and need was as close as it has ever been to me. In this dark place of intense sadness, feeling paralyzed and close to breaking, He was made known to me.
Although it may be laughable to some, pretty consistently throughout my life since adolescence, my Creator has chosen to draw near to me through lyrics of songs and most often through those penned by the infamous Bono of the band U2. Such was the case on St. Patrick’s Day when Bono, self-isolating at his home overlooking beautiful Killiney Bay outside of Dublin, sat down at the piano and filmed himself singing a song he had just written entitled, “Let Your Love Be Known.” As I listened to the words and tears streamed down my face, I recognized that in the breaking of my heart and in the breaking of things I thought were certain, Jesus was making Himself known to me anew. It became crystal clear that in the midst of all this chaos and catastrophe, I have the power to do one thing and one thing only. Each and every morning on decent days and as often as is necessary on the worst of days, I ask myself, how can I make my love known today? What can I do to relieve the suffering of others in my little way? And then I humbly implore of my God, please let Your love be known through me. This question and pleading have grounded me and led me away from the precipice of despair. They have restored hope and have opened my eyes to look for the opportunities to show love and to recognize love being made known through others.
One of the first opportunities when I recognized love being made known through others was the day I shared with a small group of five childhood companions the story of my friend’s situation wherein six adults living under one roof were only able to afford one meal a day. We were group messaging, discussing the toll of recent days. I was only hoping to relieve my heartbreak by sharing my sadness. What happened next blew my mind. One after the other, these women and their families reached out with gifts of food, toilet paper and cash for me to pass onto my friend. Even my goddaughter, a high school student working part-time at Target, responded with a large sum of her savings toward the collection. We each did what we could and in the end we delivered over $1500 cash and gift cards, along with loads of supplies. We have an immense power, both individually and collectively to lighten the burden that crushes so many right now. The family was enabled to pay their mortgage and to secure enough food for a while. Since then many more opportunities have presented themselves. Time and time again, I have witnessed people of goodwill step up to care for others in creative and inspiring ways, even for strangers in need.
As we enter into another month of self-isolation, I still try to let a good dose of the world’s suffering into my heart, so as not to grow cold. But I have also begun to balance the breaking with the bright spots. For me these include the simple blessings which once went largely unnoticed when we were living in the normal day-to-day. Waking up to the laughter of my girl, who has at times taken on the schedule of your average vampire, has been like a medicine for my soul. Instead of being annoyed that she is up all night, I revel in the sound of the joy reverberating through my house in the early morning. When praying a blessing over my food before meal times, somehow my thoughts and intentions now include gratitude for the soil and its nutrients, the sun and the rain, the farmers and the food packagers, the pickers in the fields, the truck drivers and the grocery workers; all of these give of themselves to make it possible for me to nourish my body with food. For the first time in my adult life I find a sense of excitement to work outside in my yard to clean up the winter’s leaves and tackle the emerging weeds. To be surrounded by the beauty of spring and the new life it promises against the contrast of devastation that is our current reality is a gift unlike ever before.
On the Road to Emmaus, the followers of Jesus didn’t recognize Him at first because He was no longer the same after crucifixion and resurrection. Many of us naturally long for the time when we can go back to how things were before this pandemic changed everything. But in my longing for the comfort of normalcy, I find myself wrestling with the possibility that maybe I’m not supposed to be the same. So much has been exposed within me that I really don’t like seeing. I have been confronted by the character flaws and patterns that have comfortably hidden themselves under the guise of the normal routine. They include the false belief that since I have less than many of my neighbors in my affluent suburb, I shouldn’t be expected to give much to others; my lack of action that makes me complicit in creating a society that is unequal and unjust for those with the least among us; my unconscious mindset that I am entitled to my shelter, food and healthcare. These are all so ugly to face and yet, I can only hope and pray that when these dark days lighten, I will have been transformed. Maybe, just maybe, parts of me will even be unrecognizable compared to who I have been in the past.
Yesterday the death toll due to COVID 19 in the United States surpassed the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. This grim reality can remain but a cold, hard statistic unless we allow ourselves to enter into the stories of those who have been lost and the grief of those left behind. The temptation to avoid the suffering and remain hardened so that we don’t feel the pain is real. Yet it is precisely in this moment in history that we are being given the gift of an enormous opportunity. May we allow for enough of the breaking to occur within ourselves so that Love Incarnate may be made known to us and leave us transformed in His wake.
“It is no longer in my power to change, correct or add to the past; for neither sages or prophets could do that. And so what the past has embraced I must entrust to God.
O present moment, you belong to me, whole and entire. I desire to use you as best I can. And although I am weak and small, you grant me the grace of your omnipotence.
And so, trusting in Your mercy, I walk through life like a little child, offering you each day this heart burning with love for Your greater glory.”Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul