While memories of the global disaster brought about by the new coronavirus at Easter time of this year will long be remembered, there are other, more uplifting reasons to look back on the second week of Easter. Pope John Paul II died on April 2nd, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, the world at his bedside. His funeral was held on April 8th, the end of that Week. He was beatified on May 1, 2011, the Second Sunday of Easter, and canonized (with Pope John XXIII) on April 27, 2014 – the Second Sunday of Easter. It may also be noted that as the world watched on television, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2nd, 2011. All of us will no doubt have many reasons to recall the Second Week of Easter in time to come.
But long after the memory of the passing of bin Laden has faded, and hopefully the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 will be at best an unhappy memory, the great throngs in Rome earlier this century will be remembered. Several million people gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and over a million attended his beatification and the canonizations in 2014. Those immense, joyous gatherings are a far cry from the small, quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus that we recall on this Sunday. The gospel story reminds us that the great assembles we have witnessed are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that should truly occupy our attention in this Easter season. How strange in a way that Jesus did not choose to appear to thousands of people after the Resurrection. According to St. Paul the largest number who saw him numbered about 500 [1 Cor 15:6].
It is still Easter day in the mind of the Church. We heard this same gospel on the Wednesday right after Easter. It tells the story of two early disciples walking back to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They seemed to have remained with the other disciples for the Sabbath. But like Thomas in the Gospel of John, they couldn’t believe the women’s wild story that Jesus was risen. They are deeply disappointed. Apparently one of these fellows, Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early community to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. It probably got a good laugh from his friends and family for a long, long time.
The two grief-stricken and slightly slow-witted disciples found their faith restored when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as Thomas came to believe when he saw and touched Christ a week after the Resurrection. In the case of the two disciples, and of us as well, the same could be said: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” [John 20:29].
There’s another interesting item in Luke’s story. At first, the disciples report that “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” But when they return to the rest of the disciples, not only do they agree that Jesus has risen, for they have indeed seen him, but they also affirm that he appeared to Simon. Luke has no account of any appearance to Simon Peter in his description of the events following the Resurrection, nor do the other evangelists except when Jesus appears to the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee many days later. But there is a confirmation of an apparition to Peter in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, probably the earliest of all accounts of the Resurrection, where he says “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [1 Cor. 15: 4-5].”
Hard to believe, skeptics say. But Paul knew St. Peter, with whom he did not always get along well. He didn’t make that story up. But what does it take to believe something? Or to believe in someone or something?
Let me suggest that the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the Spirit of Christ before they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread — “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?”
Luke reminds us that the eyes of our minds and hearts need to be opened by faith in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere. For believing is an act of the heart as well as of the mind, perhaps in some ways even more so. There is a tradition that the Latin word “credo,” I believe,” comes from the Latin words ‘cor’ — “heart,” and ‘dare’ “to give.” To believe means to give our heart to something, or rather, to someone.
The appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has something else to tell us, something worth thinking about in the afterglow of those Roman celebrations and the harsh glare of the coronavirus pandemic. Luke reminds us that it is in the small things, the unexpected and seemingly insignificant moments of life, that we truly encounter the presence of God – the sharing of scarce food, making and distributing face-masks, checking on elderly neighbors. We know it in the breaking of bread and in opening the pages of a book. God’s book. But God’s book is wide and vast. Ultimately it is the whole universe itself. To the eyes of faith, every cranny and quark is filled with the presence of God. In order to see, we need only look with the eyes of faith.