The Disciples on the Road to Emmaus: When Things Do not Workout and COVID 19

This Sunday’s Gospel from Luke 24:13-35, which presents us with the story of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, presents us with what has always been one of my favorite Gospel stories. It takes place on the “very day” that Jesus has risen from the dead. As it takes place, some of Jesus’ disciples are just learning that He has risen. In the case of the disciples in this story, Cleopas and his friends are actually leaving Jerusalem—walking away from the Holy City. As they leave the city, they are completely destitute, feeling that all of their hopes and dreams have been destroyed because of the death of Jesus. They even say: “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.” Because of the arrest and death of the one whom they thought would redeem Israel, they are devastated and cannot imagine what the future will hold for them.

What is truly baffling about this story is that these disciples of Jesus do not even recognize Him as he comes up to them as they are leaving the city and attempts to comfort them. They have become so overwhelmed with their problems and difficulties that as Christ appears to them in the midst of their trials, they do not even know that He is with them and are unable to recognize Him. This, I think, is what can happen to so many of us in the course of our own lives. We focus on our own problems and refuse to look outward to find the Lord who is walking with us in those trials. The more serious the problems become, the less we look outward to see God, and can find ourselves believing that God has abandoned us. Yet, like the disciples in this Gospel, God is often with us at our side as we walk through our trials and we fail to see that He is with us.

Many people today, myself included, have been completely broadsided by this COVID 19 pandemic and the serious manner in which it has altered the course of our lives. It has caused us to question how we can deal with this situation and at times to doubt that God is really with us through our trials and difficulties. We can find ourselves like the disciples in this beautiful Gospel story, walking away from God and not recognizing that the Lord is with us. And yet, as He was with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus is with each one of us and invites us to see His face in our trials.

In 2005, Saint John Paul II wrote a beautiful commentary on this Gospel, which spoke of the Lord’s presence with us and the manner in which we were invited to see him present in our lives. This letter was entitled Mane Nobiscum Domine, or in English Remain with us Lord. It points to the importance of the Eucharist in our lives and the way in which we are invited through the celebration of the Mass to know Christ’s presence in our lives. At this difficult time, when we are unable to gather in our churches to celebrate Mass together, I think it is important to remind ourselves of the Lord’s presence to us in the Eucharist, Liturgy of the Word and Christian community.  By reminding ourselves of this, we might be affirmed by this presence and remind ourselves of what has been God’s presence in our lives in the past, what is now His presence through this time of difficulty, and what will again be His presence in our lives when we can all gather in the churches of our Archdiocese again to celebrate the Eucharist in the Christian community as we are intended to do.

Saint John Paul II, said that we can see three moments in this Sunday’s Gospel that are similar to the encounter that Jesus invites each of us to share with Him when we celebrate Mass. These moments are: 1) Encounter; 2) Communion; and 3) Mission. As we reflect on these moments, we can be reminded of what we have shared with the Lord in the Eucharist in the past; we can reflect upon other ways that we might have a similar experiences at this time; and we can look forward to when we can gather again in our churches and once again be strengthened through the celebration of the Eucharist together again as a community.

In this Gospel story, the disciples have an encounter with the Lord. On the first day of the week, the very day that He had risen from the dead, Jesus appears to His disciples and celebrates a Mass with them.  At first, they are actually blinded to seeing Him as they are caught up in their own worries and anxieties. Jesus goes through the Old Testament teachings about the Messiah and helps them to see that God has been present with the people of Israel in their sufferings. It is finally when He breaks bread with them that their eyes are opened and they see Jesus with them on the road, despite their fears and uncertainties. During these days that we cannot be together as a community to celebrate Mass, we can still read the scriptures and reflect upon how God has been present to His people in difficult times. Each one of us can reflect upon how in the past the Eucharist and the Sunday gathering has strengthened us and helped us be aware of how much Jesus loves us. We will once again be able to see Him in the Eucharist and be with Him when this situation passes. In fact, the only reason that we are not gathering to celebrate today is out of love for our brothers and sister. We do not want them to become sick and possibly die by our coming together. As we keep apart during this time out of charity, the Lord still invites us to be certain of His presence in our midst and to encounter Him and care for one another. Just as He appeared to His distressed disciples on the day of His resurrection, in this Easter season, Jesus invites us to encounter Him in our struggles, to be affirmed by our past celebrations of the Eucharist together, and to look forward again to when we are able to celebrate together.

After they had encountered the Lord in the breaking of the bread, Saint John Pail II says that the disciples were established in communion with the Lord. When they did not recognize Him on the path, this communion had not yet been established. Only after they had encountered Him, where their eyes open through the encounter, and their hearts burned within them as they enjoyed communion with Him. You and I enjoyed communion with the Lord every time we have celebrated the Eucharist together with Him in the past. This communion is established as the Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts and we are established in a communion with the Holy Trinity. However, we are also established in communion with one another as brothers and sisters who are members of the Body of Christ; which is both the Eucharist and the community of the baptized. This communion exists even when we cannot come together to celebrate Mass. What has been established in us through baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist cannot be diminished by the fact that we cannot gather together in our churches at this present time. We can still pray and ask that God to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts as we await the day we can once again enjoy this communion together at the celebration of the Sunday Mass. We can still reach out to members of the community and support them by charitable efforts, phone calls and prayers. We can call people who live alone, buy and leave groceries at the doors of a neighbour who is a senior, and pray for those who are sick and dying alone. We can find strength in the hope that we will be together again and return to the community life that is so important to each of us. Until then, there are many great resources, like Cardinal Collins’ daily Mass from the Cathedral that can be watched on the Archdiocesan website found at: www.archtoronto.org . We can be sustained by the communion we had, can know differently now and will again share.

Once the disciples had encountered the Lord, and were established in communion with Him, they rushed to tell the others that Jesus had risen and was with them. Saint John Paul II said that this rushing to tell others pointed to the mission that belongs to all of the baptized. That mission is given to us at the end of every Mass when we are sent out into the world to share the good news with our brothers and sisters and to work for the building of the Kingdom of God in our daily lives. The name for the “Mass” actually comes form the Latin words that are used at the end of Mass—Ite Missae est—Go, the Mass is finished. We actually come to Mass on Sunday so that we might be sent out to live the rest of the week with the Lord and to make Him present to others.  This year, because of the COVID 19 virus, it has been a while since most of us were sent from Mass. However, each one of us still has a mission. That mission is to help the Church to be built-up in the world and present in our local community. We can still live that mission by speaking a word of hope to those in need and sharing the Good News with our brothers and sisters in this time of uncertainty. We can also live that mission by supporting the work of the Church at this difficult time. Part of the mission of the laity is to support the work of the Church financially. This is needed more then ever now as our parishes are closed and have no revenues from the Sunday collection. Please, if you are able, support the needs of your local church during this epidemic. Donations can be mailed to the parish, left at the parish or made through the Archdiocesan website. Please be sure to select your parish on the Archdiocesan site. Another way to support the mission of the Church is to support ShareLIfe. The many agencies that care for the poor and the marginalized at this time depend now more then ever on ShareLife donations. Please help the Church at this time to fulfill its mission by supporting  ShareLife. Again, this can be done by mailing your donations to the parish, leaving them at the door or by donating online. ShareLife is so important for helping our local Church live its mission of Living the Gospel.

The story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus tells us a powerful story of how Jesus’ friends were blinded to His presence in their lives as they faced some very sad and uncertain times. They did not know how they could continue without their friend and could not see Him standing right in front of them. As we confront the uncertainty of the COVID 19 virus, many of us have the same uncertainty and are blinded to Jesus’ presence in our lives. However, even though we might be unable to see Him in these difficult times, the risen Jesus is with us and always walks at our side. He invites us to look in new and different ways to find Him—even if it means looking where He has always been in the past. Scripture reading, prayer and acts of charity, while maintaining social distance, will bring us to encounter Jesus. By inviting the Lord into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can experience communion with the Holy Trinity and reach out in communion by acts of charity to live in communion with our brothers and sisters. By our baptism, we all have a mission as member of Christ’s Body, the Church. This mission is not diminished by the fact that we cannot receive the Eucharist, rather our mission causes us to long for when we can be together to receive it again. We are called to live this mission in a new way, as we support one another, our parishes and Sharelife through acts of charity and generosity. We are still Church, a Family of Faith, and we will come together again, when this pandemic has passed, to encounter the Lord, deepen in communion, and live our mission as brothers and sisters strengthened by the Lord in the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist.

May we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, have our eyes opened to the risen Lord who is always at our side in these uncertain times.

Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto