Have you ever had an experience so traumatic it challenged your world view and everything you’d ever believed in? That’s what happened to Cleopas and the other disciple whom we meet in today’s Gospel. We encounter them walking towards Emmaus and away from Jerusalem, away from the place of suffering and lost hopes. In their confusion, they tried to make sense of what happened there three days earlier. A stranger quietly joins them and asks, “What are you discussing as you walk along the road?”
They’re incredulous and think “Doesn’t everyone know what happened?” So, they tell him the awful story, how the one in whom they had placed all their hopes was crucified like a common criminal! They tell him about the women who’d gone to the tomb only to find it empty, and how they’d told the ridiculous story that angels had appeared to them and said Jesus was alive. “Then some of us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
Seeing is believing. The disciples were not about to buy into this obvious hoax. They weren’t going to open their hearts and risk being hurt all over again. That’s when Jesus, the stranger they still don’t recognize, steps in. He explains all the Scriptures that point to him, and emphasizes that suffering is part of the plan. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Later they recognize him during the meal, but then he vanishes! “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” As they encountered the risen Christ, their despondence turned into elation. They could hope again, believe again, trust and love again.
Encounters with the risen Christ still happen to ordinary people like us. Think about it. Have you ever struggled with an issue when all of a sudden you meet a stranger who teaches you something important or simply consoles you? Has Jesus ever turned up in your life, perhaps in a “distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta puts it?
Once ministering as a chaplain in a hospital, while walking through the lobby on my way to visit patients on my referral list, I noticed a young, very thin, African-American man who appeared to be homeless. He was dozing on a bench with his bag of belongings at his feet.
“Hello,” I said, startling him. I introduced myself and asked how he was doing. I soon learned that he was homeless, that he’d moved to Maryland from California because he’d fallen on hard times and wanted to make a new start. He pointed to the bandage on his lower leg. He’d just been treated for a dog bite in the emergency department, and now was trying to decide where to go and what to do next. I listened to his story and was amazed that he was so articulate, so wise and mature.
Soon my heart began to burn within me. I asked if I could pray with him, and he eagerly took my hand. My “Amen” did not end our exchange. He turned things upside down and began praying and ministering to me, calling me by name. He became my chaplain. I was a little shaken when I opened my eyes and met his unflinching loving gaze.
This was no stranger. Jesus can hide in anyone when he wants to teach, enlighten, explain, comfort, console, heal and love.
So when your heart begins to burn within you, pay attention, listen and give thanks.