This is a difficult time for Roman Catholics in the United States. Our church, which stood so tall and proud after the Second World War and the election of the first Catholic as president, has been dealt some grievous blows in recent times. There seems no end to the tide of stories about the sexual abuse crisis. When will the next bomb explode, many of us ask in our hearts, if not aloud.
The effects of this crisis are being felt by all of us. In addition, the effects of the precipitous drop in the number of diocesan seminarians and candidates for religious life, which began in the late 1960’s, and the departure from the active priesthood and from religious congregations of thousands of members, which began at about the same time, are now being acutely felt, even in areas of the country that were once rich in the number of both diocesan and religious priests and of religious sisters and brothers.
Reeling from the sexual abuse stories, we also face the prospect of closing parishes that were the glory of the church in the past century. The most recent polls suggest that Protestants attend church weekly at a higher rate than Catholics. We have been brought low indeed from the “glory days” of the middle of the last century.
How are we responding to these blows? I suspect that our reactions run the gamut from sadness and depression to anger and resentment. I do not believe that one could characterize the mood of many meetings of Catholics, whether for Mass or for other events, as joyous and buoyant. There is heaviness in the atmosphere that betrays sadness.
In addition, many Catholics are angry. Clearly the most pained and angry are those who were abused and their families. But the sexual abuse crisis has probably angered us all, and the anger is directed at many targets. In addition, Catholics are polarized on a number of issues, and the positions seem to be hardening as we try to figure out what has happened to us as a people.
Resentment is not far from the surface in many Catholics. How could this have happened to our church and to us? Resentment leads to the search for causes, for someone or something to blame: the Second Vatican Council? The sexual revolution? Permissiveness in seminaries and in society in general? Homosexual priests and bishops? Bishops who cared more for the reputation of the church than for the safety of children? The repression of emotions and feelings in the seminaries prior to Vatican II? Celibacy as a requirement for ordination? The failure to have women represented in the decision-making councils of the church? These reasons and many others have been adduced to explain what has happened to our church.
In this situation, with all these emotions acknowledged to be present among us as a people, if not in each individual, I want to suggest a meditation on the Emmaus story in Lk 24:13-35. For this idea I am indebted to N. T. Wright, presently Anglican bishop of Durham, England, who offered such a meditation for the postmodern era in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (1999).
In Luke’s Gospel we read a story of two disciples, who were walking away from Jerusalem toward the town of Emmaus on a Sunday morning. Some commentators believe they may have been a couple, Cleopas and his wife. Jesus had been killed and buried on Friday. On Sunday morning the two had heard that some women had found the tomb and witnessed a vision of angels, who said that Jesus was alive; but the pair had left Jerusalem for Emmaus without any hope.
They believed, as did most of the people of Israel, that the Messiah would come to save God’s people from their status as an occupied and demeaned vassal of Rome and in the process begin the rule of God for the whole world. They and the other disciples had believed that Jesus was this Messiah. But then he had been cruelly and shamefully crucified and killed. There was no way that what had happened to Jesus could be put together with his being Messiah. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they tell the stranger they meet on the road. Their hopes had been dashed on Friday. The Romans showed who had the power by killing Jesus in a degrading, humiliating way. God had done nothing to stop this naked display of power. So Jesus could not have been the Messiah. Despair took the place of hope in their hearts. The news about the empty tomb and the words of the angel did not break through the despair. “We had hoped, but there is no hope now.”
As they walked the road to Emmaus, they must have been wondering what they would do now and may even have wondered whether the whole expectation of a messiah was a pipe dream. Besides depression and sadness, could they have been filled with resentment as well, resentment that they had been taken in by Jesus, that their hopes had been so raised, only to be dashed? Perhaps this explains why they left Jerusalem and their other companions to return to Emmaus. They were abandoning the city where they had been misled so badly, perhaps shaking the dust from their feet. Isn’t that a normal human reaction to having one’s hopes blown away? “I’m not going to get my hopes up again. You won’t see me consorting with fools who believe in fairy tales.”
Do we see ourselves in these two people? Can I empathize with them because I, too, had hoped? I suggest that we walk with them in imagination and allow our own feelings in this time of crisis to surface. What are my feelings as I contemplate the situation of our church? Allow all the feelings to surface. They are our reality now, just as the feelings of the two disciples were their reality then.
After the disciples poured out their despair, their anger, their sadness and their resentment to the stranger, he proceeded to tell them the story of Israel in such a way that the death of Jesus on the cross made sense—indeed, made sense of Israel’s history in the only way possible. Luke does not give us the details of the stranger’s discourse, but we can fill them in without too much difficulty. Throughout Israel’s history, God had intervened to save the people when they were at their lowest ebb, brought to that point by their own sinful folly or that of their leaders. When they had no hope, God once again entered the picture and gave them hope.
Take one example from Israel’s history. The prophet Ezekiel lived in the time of the Babylonian captivity (597-538 B.C.), when the Israelites were carried off as slaves to Babylon and lived far from the Promised Land. The prophet is carried by the spirit to a valley filled with dead bones (Ezek 37) and is asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Of course, they cannot; they are dry and dead. But he is told to prophesy over the bones, “and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” God then tells Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore, prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
Perhaps the stranger on the road to Emmaus retold such stories to the two disciples, reminding them that their faith is in God, and that God can bring the dead to life, can save the people even when all seems lost.
As the stranger told them the story, a story that included the death by crucifixion of Jesus, their hearts burned within them. But apparently they did not pay attention to this until after Jesus broke bread with them at the end of their walk. Why were their hearts burning?
I venture to say that the words of the stranger touched something deep within them. They, like all of us, were created by God’s desire, a desire that never fails, that is everlasting, that knows not death and can never be extinguished. That desire creates us, makes us who we are—indeed, makes us desirable to God. And that desire lives deep inside us, drawing us to union with God. That desire evokes hope in us, a hope that, no matter what happens, we are wanted by God and will live forever with God. The trauma of Jesus’ cruel death had overwhelmed that hope for a while, but the words of the stranger on the road stoked the fire of that hope again.
When they reached Emmaus, the two did not want to let the stranger go and prevailed on him to have dinner with them. In the breaking of the bread they recognized who the stranger was, and then realized that their hearts had been burning as he told them the story. Death had not triumphed; it had no sting. The crucifixion was the paradoxical victory of God. The disciples hurried back to the community in Jerusalem, where they found that their companions had good news to match theirs; they too, who “had hoped,” now radiated hope and joy.
In this time of trial and the crash of hope, this story can be good news for us too. But we need to let it touch us where we are, in our sadness, our anger, our resentment. Let us invite the stranger, who is no stranger, to tell us the story that will set our hearts burning again.