Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" The disciples’ hearts were on fire during this sacred conversation. And that fire was so hot that it indelibly seared their souls with the intimate knowledge, peace, and love of the resurrected Christ. And they were transformed. It is the perfect conclusion to Luke’s Gospel. In the opening chapters in Luke, John the Baptist proclaims "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming... He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16). It is no wonder then that the resurrected Christ should set the hearts of these disciples on fire, and they are among the first to be touched by him. As Luke the Evangelist narrates, things do not start out this way for the two travelling companions. When that day dawned for them, there were no angels, rolled stones, or burial cloths; these two disciples heard about all that second hand. For them, the news did not assuage the tragic and outrageous occurrences of the past several days; rather, it only added confusion to an already puzzling set of circumstances. All the doubt and confusion, however, change at the breaking of the bread. In an instant they see that the cross has led to the resurrection. Who are these disciples, anyway? Luke tells us that one of them is named Cleopas, a man who gains importance through his wife. In John’s Gospel we hear of a certain "Mary, the wife of Klopas," as one of the women standing at the cross on Good Friday watching Jesus die. Although scholarly opinion is divided on whether the Cleopas heard this morning and the Klopas mentioned in John’s Gospel are one and the same, the balance seems to indicate they are. We can conclude, therefore, that Cleopas and his wife Mary are the two disciples on the road. Cleopas and Mary would certainly be disillusioned and downcast over Jesus’ death, but moreover Mary, because she actually witnessed the gruesome crucifixion, would have been traumatized by the event. That their earnest and intense conversation would attract the stranger’s attention should not be a surprise. Luke tells us that when Jesus drew up to them, "their eyes were prevented from recognizing him". This situation is not unlike the experience of the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning. No one in any of the Gospels recognizes Jesus right off. His resurrected body most certainly looked a little different, and in addition, people under emotional stress often don’t immediately recognize what should be familiar to them. All these clouds vanish, however, at the breaking of the bread. At that moment, at the breaking of the bread, Jesus vanishes. Cleopas and Mary’s only spoken response is, ""Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" And their only reaction is to run all the way back to Jerusalem with the news, which is pretty extraordinary considering the sun had already set and the trek was all uphill. "Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?" A metaphorical phrase based on two concrete elements: heart and fire. In the biblical literature, the human heart is the source of all knowledge, thought, and will. From the heart come all things human, and as such, it can be considered the soul or one’s very being. Fire, the other element in the metaphor, also has strong standing in biblical tradition. The Bible is replete with images of fire as the catalyst which cleanses, burnishes, transforms everything it touches from metals, to fields, to people. God is a "consuming fire". These powerful images extend beyond the Bible and become a fixture in Christian mysticism. For Benedictine spirituality, one of the greatest images of the monastic life is described by Pope St. Gregory the Great in his Dialogues, where he describes the events surrounding Saint Benedict’s death. Benedict’s soul is so radiant that witnesses see it being carried over a fiery path of thousands of burning flames stretching from earth to heaven. And in what is perhaps one of the most famous accounts of a religious experience was penned by the great French mathematician, philosopher, and mystic, Blaise Pascal. After his death, a servant, cleaning out old clothing, found a piece of parchment sewn in Pascal’s vest. On it were written these words: The year of grace 1654 Fire The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob Not of the philosophers and intellectuals Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace The God of Jesus Christ Pascal always referred to this event as the "Night of Fire", and it occurred as he was in a depression over the death of his father. As one can imagine, that spiritual experienced changed Pascal’s life, and he was never the same again. This flame of a religious experience is not to be interpreted as a perpetual, emotional high. Pascal wrote a note of the experience and sewed it in his clothing, lest he someday forget what had happened to him. This past fall, the writings of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were published under the title of Come Be My Light. These accounts reveal that Mother Teresa had her intense, initial religious experience of God and then never felt the love of God again for the rest of her life. Much of what she records rivals anything an antheistic nihilist would or could pen write. Yet, she did what she did, and anyone who met her or saw her was most struck by the godlike radiance and joy that emanated from her. A heart burned by Christ never recuperates. With or without the emotional elation, it knows only one thing, and that outside union with the Risen Christ, everything else is counterfeit. Such a heart can pull us through the greatest ambiguities, the darkest valleys, and the most tremendous hells life can offer. A heart burned by Christ is a heart being transformed and divinized into the image of the one who calls us. Following that call is the Christian vocation. We become one with Chris; when others see us, they see Christ.. The breaking of the bread, the Eucharist, connects Cleopas’ and Mary’s experience of Christ with our own. We here all partake of the one and the same Eucharist with each other, but also with all those through time back and time forward, with those living the joy of the spirit and with those struggling in the pit of despair. In a very real way, the Eucharist is the one and the same experience. The Christ who meets Cleopas and Mary on the road, who has met the saints, mystics, and sinners in the whole course of history, also comes up to us on our journey in life to burn and sear our hearts, and we will carry that scar forever. Alleluia, he has risen; he has truly risen, alleluia. Michael Patella, OSB References: Marvin R. O’Connell, Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997) 97-98. Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed. Come be my Light (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
April 6 Third Sunday of Easter