Have you ever wondered why the disciples walking to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus? The gospel says that “their eyes prevented from recognizing him.” (Lk. 24:16) How could they not recognize Jesus?
Years ago, a wise priest told me that, at the time of a tragic death, people often ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ But the most important question is not Why, but What. He said that it was essential to help people to move from asking, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ to ‘What is God doing?’ The disciples were wounded by the crucifixion, and it darkened their souls. It was all they could think about. They were completely focused on Jesus’ suffering, and were probably asking, ‘Why did God let this to happen?’ But they were not asking, ‘What is God doing?’ They were stuck in the darkness. Their eyes and hearts were clouded over.
Right now, it is so easy for our eyes to be prevented from recognizing the Risen Lord. It feels like we’re living under a dark cloud. In our nation, 54,000 people have died from COVID-19. This week three members of one family died on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Thousands of families are mourning, but without the normal funeral rites.
The elderly and people with compromised immunity are anxious about how they will interact with others for a long time to come. Workers who were furloughed are living in uncertainty of how to provide for their families. As the economy deteriorates, business owners are making agonizing decisions. Healthcare workers are fatigued, yet they anticipate that they could be fighting this battle for the next year. Finally, we cannot fathom what it is like for the sick.
If we only focus on the sickness and death, on economic troubles and unemployment, or on how long we will be battling COVID-19, then we are stuck under a dark cloud. Then we are like the disciples who could only think about Jesus’ crucifixion. Their perspective was clouded because they were totally absorbed in his suffering and death.
Jesus refocused his disciples by saying, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:25-26) What did they fail to believe from the prophets? The prophets always remind us that God journeys with his people. The Israelites’ journey in the desert was painful and frightening; yet, the Lord guided them the whole time. Moses kept urging the people to trust in the Lord. They were not wandering aimlessly; rather, the Lord was leading them to the Promised Land. The Exodus was a journey from suffering to abundant life.
The life of a disciple is a paschal pilgrimage; we are going through suffering to glory. For the believer, the journey never ends in suffering, but in glory. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” This was something Jesus had told his disciples several times, but they never got it.
Later, they saw how his obedient suffering revealed his total trust in the Father and perfect love for us. His terrible death revealed that God’s fidelity endures beyond death and that God’s power to bestow life is immeasurable. Life always wins. God uses suffering in a mysterious way to reveal his glory. Moses and all of the prophets speak about this.
Every disciple is on this paschal pilgrimage. If we trust completely in the Father, then we will be given the grace of Christ to endure all suffering and to rise beyond death. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus urged the disciples to look at the longer journey; it is pilgrimage under God’s watchful eyes and inside of his caring hands.
Never let yourself be totally preoccupied by a tragic event. Otherwise, you will keep asking, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ Instead, say to yourself, ‘Surely the Lord is here, so what is God doing in this moment?’ What does God want us to learn as we journey during the pandemic? How are we to care for one another? What is God asking of you and me? How is the Lord using this suffering as a way for us to enter into his glory?
This is a painful and stressful time filled with uncertainty; yet it is a special time of grace. It is a desert experience with God. It is a paschal pilgrimage, and the Lord is filling up our suffering with his presence. As Paul Claudel said, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.”
Here is a story of someone who lived with faith that God was with him in suffering. He sensed that God filled his suffering with His presence. Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận was imprisoned for 12 years when he was a bishop in Vietnam. The night he was captured and was being taken away, he felt sadness, abandonment and exhaustion, but he remembered the words of John Walsh, a missionary bishop in China, who had also been imprisoned. He said, “I am not going to wait. I will live each present moment, filling it to the brim with love.”
Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận remembered this saying and wrote letters to his people. Those letters were later published as a book in eight different languages – Vietnamese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Chinese. The book is titled The Road of Hope.
If we try to wait out COVID-19, then we will not live these days well. To be honest, I keep stumbling in these days, which are filled with stress, new problems, and complaints. I often fail to be humble, gentle and patient with others. Yet, I sense the Lord’s presence and constant help. I am certain that the Lord is using this time to help us mature in faith, hope and charity. It is a paschal pilgrimage, a journey of suffering that is necessary to enter into his glory. It is a special time of growing in grace, perseverance and patient love. It is an integral moment in our pilgrimage to glory.
I encourage you not to wait for COVID-19 to be over, but to live each present moment, filling it to the brim with love. However, we can do that only if we ask the Lord to fill us to the brim with his daily forgiveness and patient love. Jesus came to fill up our sufferings with his presence, so that we could live each moment, filling it to the brim with love.