How Do We Return To Jerusalem Changed? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Our Gospel today, Luke 24:13-35, begins with two disciples of Jesus journeying to Emmaus. They must have been dejected. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to redeem Israel? How could one then make sense of his gruesome death on the cross? They might have been distraught. If they had left everything to follow Jesus, what was going to happen to them now? They most probably were also afraid. Their leader was just killed – could the same fate be awaiting them? Maybe they weren’t simply leaving Jerusalem but were actually fleeing from danger. 

It is not too difficult to put ourselves in the sandals of those two disciples. Dejected, distraught, afraid – those words can also describe us today during this crisis.

We are not told why the two disciples were going to Emmaus, but for them, it probably stood for safety and refuge. At present, we can only guess where Emmaus was. Archaeologists and historians point to several possibilities, but we cannot be sure. I think this colored my prayer as I contemplated this passage. Being on quarantine is like travelling to an Emmaus no one knows about. Emmaus, for me, stands for uncertainty: Where – and when – will all this end?

But our Gospel today ends with the two disciples back in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had not changed. It was still the city of despair because it was where Christ was crucified. It was still the place of fear because many of the people responsible for his arrest and sentencing were still there. Jerusalem was still the same, but from being dejected, distraught, and afraid, the two disciples had changed.

When the lockdown ends and we return to the world – our Jerusalem – will we have changed?

Pundits and pretenders have been prognosticating about the “new normal” post-pandemic. They say it will be a different world with the wearing of masks, social distancing, prohibitions against mass gatherings, and so on. But these policies can change, and these are also only surface changes. More important are the deeper changes. 

We have seen how the skies can be blue again and heard how birds can sing in our cities. When the economy restarts, can we pursue progress in a way that is more sustainable, friendlier to our planet, and more hospitable to the other creatures we share it with? The pandemic has taught us that health and well-being are not just individual but communal. I cannot just be concerned about my own diet, exercise, and personal hygiene because we are all connected. In a very real way, we can apply St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 to our situation today: When the littlest part is sick, we can all get sick because we are one body. This is also why we cannot tolerate the glaring inequality that the coronavirus has forced us to confront. While this disease does not discriminate between rich or poor, there is a great difference between those who can spend the day binging on videos and those who can only worry about where their next meal is coming from, between those who can wash their hands for twenty seconds and those who do not have access to running water. Care for creation, solidarity, and addressing inequality are just a few of the deeper changes that need to be made.

Many of us though are not policy makers, and beyond advocacy, we can only do so much with regard to systemic and institutional changes outside us. What we have more control over are deeper changes within us.

A friend of mine shared with me how the quarantine has made her more appreciative of the little things. Another has realized the value of spending time in stillness and reflection. Still another friend has been able to embrace her vulnerability. Being a senior citizen, she was already feeling scared, and then, her cancer returned. But surprisingly, instead of drowning in fear, she found herself in an ocean of calm when she was able to say, “I really cannot control much in this life.” My friends have made promises to be more grateful, more mindful, and to stop struggling for control. But just like so many of our New Year’s resolutions, how many of these changes will last?

How can we make the positive changes in us last?

What changed the two disciples? It was the encounter with the Risen Jesus. The change in us faithful must be rooted in Christ. But how do we meet Christ during the quarantine? Many will point to how the two disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread – a symbolic action we have connected with the Mass. How can we encounter Christ when we can only watch bread being broken livestreamed but not partake of it?

What I will present next cannot really be a substitute, but it is what we have now: The two disciples encountered Jesus miles before they stopped to eat. The sharing of bread and the process of change began when Jesus started talking with them.

Jesus asked them what they were discussing and what sort of things happened in Jerusalem. Jesus knew, of course, what transpired in Jerusalem, so he must have been asking not for his sake but for theirs. I think Jesus wanted to give them a chance to tell their story. In recalling their story, they were being gifted with an opportunity to own it and to realize what changes they would have to make in response.

When the disciples shared their story, they had all the facts: how the chief priests and scribes handed over Jesus to a sentence of death, how women discovered the empty tomb, and so on. But while they had facts, they did not know their meaning. Telling your story can help you find meaning, and from meaning can come change.

Change is a long and hard process. Today, I challenge you to tackle only a small part – but a very important part. Tell God your quarantine story. Don’t ask him for favors or present your petitions yet. Just pour out your story. What we tell stories about becomes more real to us, and perhaps you will have more conviction in the changes you pledge.

But as you tell God your story, be prepared to hear him say, as he does in Luke 24:25, “Oh, how foolish you are!” As you narrate to him what has been happening around you and inside you, be humble enough to admit that what you see is only one side of a multi-faceted issue. 

Then tell your story to others… and listen to theirs. You will find even more facets to consider. You will find more changes that have to be made. You will find how foolish you have been. But hopefully, you will also be found. As what happened to the two disciples at the beginning of our Gospel today: “While they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them….”

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