Were Not Our Hearts Burning Within Us? – Nemy Que, SJ

Luke 24:13-35, 3rd Sunday of Easter

Arcabas at the table

Today’s Gospel reading belongs to the Easter stories that abound soon after the resurrection of Jesus. That same day Jesus rose from the dead, two disciples were making their way to a village named Emmaus. They were talking about the events that took place during the past days. Like so many of those who followed Jesus, they thought that Jesus was the one they had all been waiting for, the one that the prophets of old had announced would come to save them. But then he died on the cross, which broke their hearts and dashed their hopes. Although they had heard that Jesus was alive, they doubted it since they themselves had not seen him. Then, someone, a stranger, joined them on the road, who also joined their conversation. They told this new traveller about the past days. “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” And still the two disciples did not recognize that it was the risen Jesus they were talking to. He then began to explain from Moses and the prophets how it was necessary for the Messiah to die and to rise again, interpreting for them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.

It was getting late, so they stopped for the night. They invited their companion to have supper with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that, their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?””

“Were not our hearts burning within us…” Such beautiful and profound words to describe one’s encounter with the Lord. Jesus was physically present, but with their eyes they couldn’t recognize him. Instead, it was with their hearts, “burning within them,” that the veil of non-recognition was slowly being drawn apart. It was not until they were seated at table with him – when Jesus broke and shared bread with them – that their eyes and mind were finally fully opened, but perhaps only because they listened to their hearts.

We too are on our way to our Emmaus. Like the two disciples, it can be very difficult to recognize our Lord in what’s going on. Locked out of the company of our friends and even family for some, all we can think and talk about is our ongoing experience – the “new normal” as some would call it. We are so immersed in the experience of this health crisis that we seem unable to see beyond it. What’s beyond the lockdown? How will things be when we’re finally out of the four walls of our homes? Will we survive two more weeks of this staying in place?

“Were not our hearts burning within us…?” We have to return to our hearts. It is there that we will find our risen Lord. When we feel the suffering of our people, we are feeling with how our Lord felt when he looked at those who followed him, like sheep without a shepherd. When we feel compassion for those who are struggling to put food on their tables, because they have lost their jobs, then we are feeling with how our Lord felt when he multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed the five thousand. When frontliners risk their lives to care for those suffering from the virus, they do this with how our Lord took pity on the sick, and recognizing their faith, cured them and made them well. When we do all this with the heart of the risen Jesus, then we are going beyond what duty requires from us; we are doing all this for love, the love of Jesus.

“Were not our hearts burning within us…” The story of the two disciples who encountered the risen Christ on their way to Emmaus is also our story, a story of a return to the heart. The way to Emmaus is the way to the heart, where we find and encounter the risen Lord.

Finally, with some stretch of the imagination, I would like to think that this return to the heart is also a call to make sure that we remain human throughout this ordeal we are going through. You see, we can get so used to the crisis that we stop being concerned – we stop counting the days before the lockdown is lifted. It does not matter that much anymore that we can’t be with friends and even members of our family. After all, we can now connect virtually. We are no longer as disturbed by the suffering and distress of those affected by the pandemic as when all this was starting.

When this happens, let us return to the heart. It is there that we will encounter our risen Lord. It is also there that we get reminded to “be human,” to remain human, when the temptation to be numbed into coldness becomes our way of coping with the anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.

I’d like to share something I read recently. It is about this young doctor, a frontliner in a New York hospital, who, in a journal she kept, wrote about her experience helping patients afflicted with coronavirus. In one of the entries, she says:

“[In the hospital] people, [patients]… come in talking, with stories to share. They get care – the best that modern medicine has to offer – with life-prolonging machines and IV drips of all sorts of critical-care drugs. We put our full minds and whole hearts into trying to save them. Then I see their bodies shut down anyway. They are alone. I’ll see that over and over again, and it will reach a point when it is numbing. What will affect me the most is not remembering them as individual people, no particular detail that separates a person from the one before and the one after, because they all come in sick with the same symptoms, the same history, until they morph together, become breathless bodies. That I am the last person they see before they die – not their families – and that I won’t remember them at all because there will be hundreds more just like them. That it will become routine.

Another doctor friend of hers tells her – “By now, I think it’s very hard to stay human. You go on, you forget you have a person, a human in front of you. You forget the patient has a life. I think that we do this to protect ourselves. Otherwise, it would be impossible to work every day…. “Staying human is painful,” the doctor continues, “but it is what I need to keep working… I realize now that keeping the emotions outside of me can help to manage… the stress, but I need to be human to keep working.”*

“Were not our hearts burning within us…” We have to keep returning to the heart – it is here where the Lord meets us on the road to our Emmaus. No matter how difficult, uncertain, and stressful times are, it is here in our hearts that we recognize and encounter the Lord.

*painting by Arcabas

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