Image: James Tissot, The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road [public domain]
The world today is traveling to Emmaus, disheartened, downtrodden and discouraged due to COVID-19 and its effects. Like the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, things are not working out as we have planned (Luke 24:17b). And so the question arises: are we willing to leave the heavenly Jerusalem because of fear and discouragement, much like the two disciples? Do we think know things so well that there is no hope? Or have we forgotten the scriptures, like the two disciples? There is great encouragement to be found for our own present situation in the experience of these two disciples.
Let’s start with the question: Who are these disciples? According to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, the two disciples were Cleophas and Luke himself:
“The disciples were talking about Jesus’ Resurrection and expressing their doubts. Luke and Cleophas, especially, were wavering in faith. As, moreover, the commands of the High Priests were again made known, that no one should harbor the disciples of Jesus or supply them with food, both resolved together to go to Emmaus” (The Life of Jesus Christ, 2004, Vol IV, pg. 378)
Does our faith waver like that of Luke and Cleophas? Luke, a brand-new disciple, left the community because things were not working out according to his plan, and so left for Emmaus. Being a doctor, reason was his primary tool in viewing the world, and now he could not reason through what just happened with Jesus. Much like today, reason alone cannot get us through these difficult times, faith is necessary.
Christ walks with us
But here is the good news: Jesus is walking along with us, listening to us explain to him what is happening with the world today—as if he didn’t know already, much like the two disciples talking to Jesus about his own Passion (Luke 24:18). Jesus humbly listens to them, and then responds, “‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe…’ and beginning with the Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Have we forgotten the scriptures today, like the two disciples did then? We too must turn to the scriptures for answers in the current times. Have we forgotten that Scripture promises that God is always with us in trials and tribulations? Or that God permits evil to occur, but only to bring about an even greater good? God’s own people suffered repeatedly through salvation history, but Scripture constantly affirms that God did not abandon them. Furthermore, God himself suffered these things through his own Passion and Death upon the Cross.
Despite all calamity and destruction, God is there walking along with his people throughout salvation history—and he is still with us today. The question is: are we kept from recognizing him because of our own introspection? (What I find most ironic is that while I am writing this article, I am having to take my own advice, and ask these questions of myself as well.)
Recognizing his presence
After the two disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31). Now that the laity have been unable to attend Mass due to COVID-19, I ask, can we still recognize Jesus if we cannot attend Mass? This is where we need to view the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, in the greater and broader understanding of God’s plan for us.
First, we can still recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread because the Mass is continuing although we are not physically present. The Sacrifice of the Mass is outside of space and time—it is we who are temporal and spatial, not God nor his holy and sacred sacrifice. In our physical separation we are called to an even deeper faith in order to see with our hearts and not with our eyes (like the disciples did) to recognize God’s presence remaining with us in every tabernacle in the world. Our Beloved has not left the tabernacles. Many churches remain open for prayer, and even Adoration.
Or—although it is not the same—we can still adore him from our homes, knowing that our beloved is only a few miles away in the local Catholic Church. Should not our hearts burn with just as much love and zeal, knowing that the Jesus who was only a few feet away from us in Eucharistic adoration several weeks ago, is the same Jesus that is just as spiritually present with us today, and still sacramentally present only miles away in the local parish? One can adore God in the Eucharist presence 5 feet away or 5 miles away—in both cases what matters is that we recognize his presence in the “breaking of the bread,” just as the two disciples did. This recognition resides ultimately in the heart, not in the eyes.
Although the temptation to feel abandoned may be very strong, the reality is that neither Christ nor the Church abandoned us when this isolation began. Let us pray for a renewal of faith to see that God is much bigger than any pandemic. As we wait with hope and ardent longing to return to Mass and the Eucharist, may God open the eyes of our hearts to recognize his presence as he walks alongside us, even on this most difficult of roads. And may our hearts burn within us today and always with ever greater love for him.