And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem . . . While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” Luke 24: 13 – 16
The road to Emmaus is a seven mile journey from Jerusalem; seven miles along a stony broken highway; seven miles from joy to despair.
The two companions traveling that road in the above Gospel were close friends of Jesus. The crucifixion has left them devastated and broken. How could God have allowed this terrible thing to happen to Jesus?
In the depths of their despair, they encounter a mysterious stranger who opens their eyes to reveal the presence of Christ. Their depression vanishes along with the mysterious stranger. They turn themselves around and head back to Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel. It is they who are resurrected.
Some of us have traveled that road to Emmaus. Like many of you, I have struggled with the problem of evil in the world: Why does God, whom I love and believe loves each of us, permit terrible things to go on: wars, racism, pandemics, violence of every kind, homelessness, mental illness, incurable disease, natural disaster?
But like those two companions in this Gospel, I have been blessed. Over and over again my eyes have been opened and I have recognized God in the breaking of the bread of everyday life. I have felt his presence in the chaos and the darkness. And through grace, I have been able to turn myself around, and to head back to Jerusalem with my faith sustained.
Many years ago, I had a powerful Emmaus experience. I had always been a person of faith and hope, but some bad things happened. My friend Vic lost his wife and two of their three children when an electrical fire started while they were asleep. Around the same time the young child Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York City; he was never seen again. These two events affected me very deeply. I began to ask, where was God?
Shortly after this I began commuting to work in New York City. As I saw the many homeless people suffering and sleeping in the streets and subways, my questioning and doubts increased. Then one day something special happened.
It was a beautiful October morning as I drove down Central Park West. I had been driving in early on Saturday mornings with coffee and sandwiches looking for people who were homeless. I spotted a disheveled young man huddled in a hooded, red sweatshirt, sitting on a park bench, rocking back and forth and staring into space. After saying good morning, I offered him some hot coffee, but he didn’t respond.
Sitting down on the bench, I poured us both some coffee and placed his cup and a few cookies down next to him. He continued to stare into space. Sipping my coffee, I carried on a one-way conversation for a while. He began to chatter in nonsense sounds to each squirrel that ran by. After a while his fingers inched over to the coffee and he gulped it down as he continued chattering with the squirrels. I finished my second cup of coffee and said good-bye, but he still did not acknowledge my presence.
Walking to the curb where my car was parked, I kept thinking how this young man was so badly damaged in mind and body that he probably would not survive the winter. Lost in my own sadness, I pulled away from the curb. As I drove down the street, I glanced in my rear-view mirror. My friend had left his bench and was standing in the street waving good-bye to me.
My eyes welled up with tears; I realized that what I was seeing in my rear-view mirror was Christ. Not that this man was Jesus in disguise but rather that the Christ within him, in the midst of all his brokenness, was reaching out and connecting to the Christ within me. At that instant my eyes were opened, and everything made sense.
God places a little piece of Godself inside of each of us when we are born. That little piece of God is our immortal soul; it is the presence of Christ within us. Life is the journey of our soul back home to its loving Creator. While our time on earth is limited and the journey can be pretty rough, getting home is all that really matters.
No matter how good we are, how loving, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the pain and contradictions of human existence. The symbol of our faith is itself a contradiction: the cross, two opposing beams of wood made from the tree of life, used to torture and destroy life. Yet in the center of the contradiction, we find God in human form.
But the message of the cross is hope. It tells us that we are not alone, that God is with us in the chaos and the darkness; he is present in the pain, the loss and the disillusionment; he is there at the center of the contradiction, the center of the cross. And someday, once we are free of the constraints of human existence and the limitations of human understanding, it will all make sense; there will be a happy ending, or more truly, a happy beginning for all eternity.
It is that mysterious stranger, who dwells in the depths of our being – the Christ within each and every one of us – who resurrects US, like he did for those companions on the road to Emmaus; and makes it possible for us to keep turning ourselves around and heading back to Jerusalem.
With love, Deacon Lex