In the Gospel narrative of St. Luke on the Third Sunday of Easter, the disciples who had just encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus and recognized him in the breaking of bread are in the midst of sharing their experience when Jesus appears to them. He who has truly risen from the dead mysteriously stands before them, inviting them to look at his hands and feet and to touch and see that he has risen and walks now in their midst. The disciples are amazed beyond belief to the point of being startled and terrified, assuming he is a ghost. But it is Jesus’ words to the disciples that convey the heart of the Easter mystery into the depths of their hearts and minds. Jesus greets them with his divine gift of peace when he says, “Peace be with you!” Then Jesus calms their troubled souls when he asks, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?”
The Emmaus story has always been a favorite Easter gospel and story. What happened on that road never fails to lift my heart. It gives me desire and hope. Blessed Columba describes well what happens inside me when that happens: “Love becomes great and burning by contact with God, takes possession of all the powers of the soul, renders it strong and generous to do perfectly all the Father's will, to give itself up wholly to the divine good pleasure.”
Now that we are grappling with this pandemic for more than a year now, overwhelmed as we are with anxiety, many feel a sense of helplessness and despair. But just as the Gospel will tell us, it is in recognizing the risen Lord even in these troubled times that we can still find and experience true joy. It is his kind of peace that will soothe our spirits amid this turmoil.
In one of his meditations, Pope Francis, interpreting this biblical passage, said: “There is a word in this Gospel passage that explains well for us what had happened at that moment,” the Pope said. We read in the text: “And while they still disbelieved for joy.” This is the focal point: the disciples “could not believe because they were afraid of joy.” Jesus “leads them to joy: The joy of the Resurrection, the joy of his presence among them.” However, for them, this joy posed “a problem for belief: They disbelieved for joy and they were full of amazement.”
The Gospel passage suggests that “the fear of joy is a Christian illness,” the Pope remarked. We tell ourselves: Let’s keep “a little distance...we are afraid of Jesus’ closeness because this brings us joy.” This attitude the Pope explains, tells us why there are so many “funeral Christians” for whom “life seems like a continual funeral.” Christians who “prefer sadness and not joy; they move better, not in the light of joy, but in the shadows.” Just “like those animals,” the Pope said, “that manage to go out at night but don’t see anything in the light of day. Like bats! And with a little bit of humor we can say that they are ‘bat Christians’ who prefer the shadows to the light of the presence of the Lord”.
Every day, these past weeks, people I know have died. Each day, I see friends reporting they have been infected, some fortunately surviving with the worst over. People are grieving. They are afraid and angry. I am, too. How could I be joyful?
The answer comes from this insight of Leon Bloy, which I first encountered in when Graham Greene quoted it in The End of the Affair (a wartime novel and thus a great novel to reread during the pandemic): “There are places in the heart which do not yet exist and pain and suffering must come to them so that they may have existence.”
Yes, if only we open our eyes and hearts, we can see that God, in his tenderness and compassion, continues to accompany us even in the midst of this pandemic. With all the suffering and death around us, there are places now in our hearts that did not exist a year ago.
When the disciples begin to recognize Jesus, their hearts burn and instantly set out to tell the others that Jesus is risen. The disciples started to understand that death is not the last word on the life of each one of us as we cannot be “held in its power.” Recognizing the real presence of the Risen Lord in our situation will give us reason to be joyful, knowing that Jesus has resurrected and is risen from the dead. God himself knows what pain and suffering but with his resurrection he is telling us if only we believe we too can conquer sickness and even death.
Let us not be afraid then to be joyful. Even in these most difficult moments of our lives, the Risen Lord always gives us the assurance of life.
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