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Living in an Emmaus moment

By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. Lk 13:11-16

During this Easter season, the familiar landmarks of our lives, including the life together we share in faith, have been profoundly altered by COVID-19. I find myself meditating on the story from Luke’s gospel of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, discouraged and disheartened.

As they began talking to the stranger who began walking with them, these two disciples recounted for him their dismay and grief at the disorienting events which had taken place in Jerusalem.

They told him how just a week earlier, Jesus had triumphantly entered the city acclaimed as Messiah and Savior. But in just a few days, everything had changed beyond recognition: this Jesus in whom they had placed their hopes in had been arrested, condemned and crucified.

No doubt, they were afraid as well of the fate awaiting those identified as his followers. They were so frightened that not even the astonishing news of the empty tomb announced by the holy women could persuade them to remain in Jerusalem.

For us, in the space of six weeks, all the familiar landmarks in our lives have been upended.

A virus that emerged in Asia just three months ago, as of the beginning of April, has infected 1.27 million people in our own country and worldwide. There have been more than 69,000 deaths due to the virus, most of whom are elderly, have underlying health problems or are front-line medical workers. Distancing measures and closures of all but essential businesses in Asia, North America and Europe have resulted in a worldwide economic recession and massive unemployment (hopefully short-term.)

For us as Catholics, along with Christians throughout the world, we are unable as Christ’s body to come together to celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week, the Triduum publicly and probably much of the Easter season due to the pandemic. To safeguard the common good across our nation and here in our diocese, public liturgies have been indefinitely suspended. As a matter of charity, the Church is doing its part to guard against the spread of the virus, in the hope that this will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

So, this seems to me like an Emmaus moment, not because we’ve lost our faith in the crucified and Risen Lord but because the present circumstances have left us, like those disciples, feeling lost and forlorn amidst enormous uncertainty and fear.

It’s difficult not to feel discouraged and disheartened in the face of so much sudden and drastic change. Even the avenue of the greatest consolation for us, being able to gather at the table of the Lord’s word and his Body and Blood, is closed off to us at present and for some time to come.

I think the distress we feel at not being able to gather (however necessary) physically is appropriate. As disciples of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, coming together in person is an essential, if not an indispensable dimension of the life we share in Christ. As a sacramental people, we cherish physical presence as an intrinsic part of how we participate in and witness to the new life of grace embodied in the person of Jesus.

Like the disciples at Emmaus, in the present moment, how can our hearts not burn within us when we recall those sublime moments. Just a few short weeks ago, we were able to gather together and mystically recognize our risen Savior in the flesh when he broke for us the bread of his sacred Body and his sacred word.

Nonetheless, I think we can also take great solace in this time during which we are required to be physically separated from each other. We are still able to gather and pray, united as the Body of Christ, in spiritual communion with each other and the Universal Church.

A glance at history teaches us that this is not the first time (or the last) when calamities such as this one separate us, even as we remain bound together in spiritual communion. We know too, from the very beginning of the Church until the present day, that the separation experienced by believers due to the weather, long distances and uncertain transportation have not impeded us from communion with Christ or with each other.

I’m reminded of this in moving opening of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where he writes:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
(Romans 1:8-12)

May we, in this time we are living through, be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

May we proclaim, as the disciples did: “He is risen! Indeed, he is truly risen!”