The Way to Emmaus, Zünd, 1877, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland.
Today’s gospel is possibly your favorite; I feel sure it must be for many people. It is peaceful, refreshing, holy, all the things we might associate with a gorgeous day in the countryside. Then the miraculous ending, when these two men realized they had been walking and listening to the Lord himself, their hearts burning, who vanished in some way from their sight and presence. Yes, but….. Clearly these two were disciples of Jesus. They seemed to have witnessed the Passion of the Lord, and were even aware that there were rumors that he had somehow come back from the grave, but why weren’t they still in Jerusalem? Look at risen Jesus’ words to his followers in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, 1:4: “And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father….” Was this the risen Lord forbidding his followers to flee the city because of meeting these two “followers” who were in all likelihood running for their lives? Last week’s gospel told us that Jesus’ followers were all huddled behind locked doors, scared that they would meet the same fate as Jesus as they were known as his followers. Now we have two followers running away! This over-arching fear was destroying Jesus’ mission in its entirety. No wonder Jesus told them to sweat it out and remain and wait for this “promise”, whatever that was, which would change everything. Meanwhile they were terrified, and who could blame them? Clearly something dramatic must have happened between today’s gospel and today’s first reading, with Peter standing up preaching openly about the Lord to anyone who would listen.
The “promise” was the gift of God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection. We will celebrate this greatest event in the life of the church (as it was the birth of the church), on 31 May. This will be 49 days later, but calculated as 50 because of the concurrent Jewish feast of Shavuot, or “Weeks”, 50 days after Passover or seven weeks. So for seven weeks, Jesus’ whole mission hung in the balance. Without the Holy Spirit there would never have been anything called Christianity, and for seven weeks there was no Holy Spirit, just a room full of frightened people waiting for the worst.
Doesn’t that describe us, almost exactly, in our situation today? It’s weird; here we all are in “self isolation”, behind locked doors for fear of the virus, hoping that we will not be discovered by it and dragged to a possible horrible death. But our “promise” is more than 50 days away: the promised vaccine will be sometime next year, possibly. So for us, there is nowhere to run, as the whole world is under this threat. The unforgettable pictures of Pope Francis in a deserted St. Peter’s Square will remain with us forever. In fact, I would bet for many of us, our only hope, apart from physical cleanliness and care, thereby obeying God’s command to love (and protect) our neighbor and ourselves, is to hope in God. And that’s where we are different from that “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” of Rabbie (Robert) Burns. For we have the Holy Spirit of God with us, who will remain with us throughout it all no matter what happens. And here a glance at today’s second reading should prove encouraging, for St. Peter tells us we must “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” That Lamb of God has the strength of God Almighty against a world of unpredictability, brutality and pain, and invites us to stand alongside as fearless disciples, unlike those running away to Emmaus.
The Apostle Peter Preaching, Veneziano, 1370, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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