Luke 34:13-35, Third Sunday of Easter
Frustration had overwhelmed Cleopas and his unnamed companion And frustrations are the result of expectations. We become frustrated, or discouraged, because the reality of what happens doesn’t measure up to what we were expecting. This is true for small things – as when an unforeseen traffic jam threatens to make us late for an important appointment. But it is also true for big things. Desperate actions, like suicide, adultery, or apostasy, often follow in the wake of a deep disappointment, a fundamental clash between the reality of life and our expectations for life.
Today Jesus wants us to identify with the two frustrated disciples and then to adjust our expectations. If we let him do that, it will be a major milestone in our spiritual lives.
In three different ways, today’s Readings present us with a biblical metaphor for what human life in this world really is.
The Responsorial Psalm explains that God is faithful, that if we stay close to him, he will safely “show us the path to life, abounding joy in God’s presence, the delights at his right hand forever.” The path to eternal life – that’s the metaphor for what this earthly adventure really is.
And in the Second Reading, St Peter tells us to “conduct ourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning.” A time of sojourning, of journeying. We are on our way home; we are pilgrims heading towards heaven, towards our Father’s house.
The Gospel passage is a living parable for the same truth – Jesus walking with his disciples along the road to Emmaus. That’s was this life is – a pilgrimage, a journey, a path.
If we truly see life this way, as it truly is, we will expect what pilgrims expect: joys and adventures, yes, but also hardship, danger, and suffering. But if we expect somehow to achieve perfect happiness with no hardships here and now – then we open the door to constant disappointment, frustration, and deep sadness.
The most important event of the Old Testament is the perfect illustration of this Christian truth: the Exodus. God freed his Chosen People from slavery in Egypt, but then they had to travel through the desert for forty years, experiencing hardship after hardship, before God led them into the Promised Land.
That’s an beautiful image of the Christian life. When we received baptism, we were freed from slavery to ignorance, sin, and the devil. But then we began a long journey of purification in which God teaches us to be like Christ, preparing our hearts and minds for heaven, our Promised Land.
In the Middle Ages this truth was taught to Christians in a very effective way. When people went to confession, the priest would often give them a pilgrimage for their penance, especially if their sins were grave or deeply ingrained. As a result, great pilgrimage churches rose up across Europe and the Mediterranean, most especially in Rome and even in Jerusalem. Pilgrimage routes were established, and every time a pilgrim reached a town along the way, he would go and ask the parish priest to stamp his pilgrim’s book. One of the most famous pilgrimage routes was and still exists in Europe: the Camino de Santiago di Compostela.
For the most part the pilgrims traveled on foot, slowly, and slept in courtyards and outdoor colonnades. They often started off their pilgrimages with a heavy pack full of extra clothes and belongings, but very soon they would have to lighten their load. These pilgrimages reminded Christians that this life was just a journey.
And just as a pilgrim won’t stop too long as he makes his way to his destination, so too we as Christians in the world should not let ourselves be seduced by laziness, but instead we should make headway in following Christ.
The most practical application of this fundamental Christian truth has to do with how Christians react to tragedy and suffering. Since we know that this life in this world is meant to be a journey and a battle, we are able to persevere through trials and tribulations that come our way, to keep on going even though the valleys of darkness. Jesus has walked the way to Calvary before us, so we can follow in his footsteps with confidence, never losing hope.
We know that God can bring good even out of the greatest evils, just as he brought salvation and the Resurrection out of the horrible failure of the Crucifixion. As a result, we have strength to weather any storm that comes our way. We don’t have to understand why God permits certain hardships and sufferings, because we already know that in the end he will never let us down. The Christian can pray, persevere, and find hope even amidst tears and terrible darkness, because we know that Christ’s victory will be ours, if we just keep walking by his side. And walking by his side is not as complicated as many think. It means three things.
It means an ongoing effort to grow in our prayer and sacramental life.
It means an ongoing effort to understand and follow Church teaching, both about faith and about moral issues.
And it means an ongoing effort to be like Christ in our own lives – in the excellence of our work, the dependability of our character, and the self-sacrificing faithfulness of our relationships.
To pray, to follow Church teaching, and to imitate Christ in our daily lives. This is how we walk close to Christ along that path of our pilgrimage, following his lead towards our eternal home.
At the end of the journey to Emmaus Jesus took away all the frustrations the two disciples experienced. And how did he do it? By breaking the bread – exactly what he is doing right now here in our Eucharistic celebration. When we receive in a few minutes Jesus in Holy Communion, let’s thank our Lord for the great gift of his friendship, and let’s promise that we will never again try to walk through life alone and so only experience frustrations but walk with him on the way that leads from discouragement and frustration to hope and joy.