The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land twice in my life: once to lead a group of university students during spring break in 2018, and then again in the fall of 2019 on a pilgrimage sponsored by Magnificat. It is the land Saint Jerome aptly dubbed the “fifth Gospel,” for it is chock-full of shrines, archeological digs, and topography that bespeak the life of Christ. In fact, there are so many places of interest—to name Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre barely scratches the surface—one could easily devote an entire issue of Magnificat to it. (Come to think of it…)

One site, however, has proven challenging for historians to pin down: Emmaus, the village seven miles from Jerusalem where two of the disciples were headed on Easter Sunday when the risen Lord appeared and joined them along the way (Lk 24:13-35). There are six main contenders for being the historical site of Emmaus, and on my last pilgrimage I was able to visit one of the most compelling, Abu Ghosh, where there is a Crusader-era church and now a Benedictine monastery. Our tour guide shared its history and presented its case admirably, and then gave us time to pray and visit the gift shop, where many of the products were made by the monks. Before long it was time to move on to the next stop on the long list of amazing places that constituted our pilgrimage.

The graces of Emmaus

To be clear, not knowing precisely where Emmaus lies should not invite the least bit of skepticism about it as a historical event. Firmly I believe and truly that it all happened just as described in Luke’s Gospel, as we’ll hear at Mass on Wednesday of the Easter Octave. But as Pope Benedict XVI once suggested, our difficulty in discovering the historical location of Emmaus may actually be a providential invitation to realize its deeper significance: namely, that “Emmaus actually represents every place. The road that leads there is the road every Christian, every person, takes. The risen Jesus makes himself our traveling companion as we go on our way, to rekindle the warmth of faith and hope in our hearts and to break the bread of eternal life.”

Jesus’ appearance to those downcast disciples, wherever it took place two thousand years ago, assures us, here and now, that he has not been defeated even when we are sad or discouraged. His being known in the breaking of bread confirms that his presence in the sacraments and in the Eucharist is a truth we can depend on with utter confidence, and which is itself the answer to our difficulties and our fears. His vanishing from sight—no sooner had the disciples seen him, even—reveals that our own experience of feeling like we’ve “lost track” of Christ is not a sign that something is wrong. As Father Donald Haggerty so beautifully shows in his books on prayer, Christ’s predilection for being elusive is a divinely clever way of helping us mature in the spiritual life. By not leaving us with the sweet and sensible awareness of his presence, or with the feeling that we are making great strides in our spiritual life, he prompts us to make more intense acts of faith.

Recall that on the road to Emmaus Jesus gave the impression he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us.” That itself was a great grace. Jesus provoked their longing to remain in his company. He was pulling them out of themselves, diverting their attention from their disappointments and causing them to become preoccupied with him, to be consumed by him. Pope Francis once said that “the entire destiny of the Church” is contained in the Emmaus encounter. “We have all had difficult moments in life,” he said, “dark moments in which we walked in sadness, pensive, without horizons, with only a wall before us. And Jesus is always beside us to give us hope, to warm our hearts and to say: ‘Go ahead, I am with you.’ The secret of the road that leads to Emmaus is simply this: despite appearances to the contrary, we continue to be loved, and God will never stop loving us. God will walk with us always, always, even in the most painful moments, even in the worst moments.”

Hope in the present tense

Think of what the disciples were saying as they walked and talked: We were hoping. “This verb in the past tense tells all,” Benedict XVI said. “We believed, we followed, we hoped. But now everything is over. Even Jesus of Nazareth, who had shown himself in his words and actions to be a powerful prophet, has failed, and we are left disappointed. It seems that the hope of faith has failed. Faith itself enters a crisis because of negative experiences that make us feel abandoned and betrayed even by the Lord.”

We have all had negative experiences, not-met expectations, and disappointments that can threaten to erode our hope in the Lord, or tempt us to scale back our confidence in him. Can we see in the Holy Eucharist, at precisely this moment in human history, and at this moment in our own lives, dear friends, the proof that he is with us and will not, in fact, ever leave us? Can we see that our own longing for him to be with us is itself evidence that he is truly there, inviting us to a deeper experience of his love? Perhaps an appropriate prayer this month, inspired by that Emmaus encounter, is this: Heart of Jesus, burning with love for us, make our hearts burn with love for you.