13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. [Luke 24:12-17, NRSV]
The seven-mile journey home to Emmaus undertaken by the two dispirited disciples is a long walk in disappointment and grief. Henri Nouwen helps us imagine and capture well the sentiment of the two sufferers on the road:
- “Two people are walking together. You can see from the way they walk that they are not happy. Their bodies are bent over, their faces are downcast, their movements slow. They do not look at each other. Once in a while they utter a word, but their words are not directed to each other. They vanish in the air as useless sounds. Although they follow the path on which they walk, they seem to have no goal. They return to their home, but their home is no longer home. They simply have no other place to go. Home has become emptiness, disillusionment, despair” [Henri Nouwen, Burning Hearts, p.23]
The men had been following Jesus of Nazareth. They had heard him speak about the love of God whom he told them to daily pray to as Father, Abba. They had heard his message of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven, and the love we need to extend to others. Life would be so beautiful; the world would be a good place to live in if people would only love each other, and show mercy and compassion to others. They had witnessed his powerful deeds, and witnessed or heard about him raising up from the dead the son of the widow of Nain, the little Tabitha, and Lazarus. They had seen some of his miraculous healings and were present when he multiplied the bread and fish for thousands. They were sure that Jesus was the Messiah.
Thoroughly defeated as they are in their hopes and expectations by Jesus’ death, they do not walk tall, their heads are not held high, and their chests are not puffed up in festive triumph and joy. Instead, they look thoroughly dejected, with heads downcast and bodies bent towards the ground. They cut a picture which suggests that their energies are all but sapped. They are in grief.
This road of grief can be a reality that falls on anybody at any stage of one’s life. We all experience some form of “loss” at different points in life. It is all the more painful when the loss is severe and least expected. Most people’s lives go well most of the time. They are generally happy and soberly content, without acting over their heads in giddy celebrations most of the time. Children’s education and future are taken care of, and their own retirement plan seems well in place. But suddenly, something unforeseen happens, something tragic. It is like the sky has collapsed and fallen on them. The loss is great and sudden. Grief sets in over this unexpected loss. In the COVID-19 pandemic, official figures on those tested positive worldwide have surpassed 92 million, while currently active cases number around 25 million. More than 67 million people have recovered from infection, but the virus leaves permanent damages to the human body even after recovery. The number of deaths is pushing towards 2 million worldwide, many of whom were young and many even left behind young families. Everything changed for them and their families who mourn their sudden demise. When tragedies strike, endless questions accompany people who grieve: Why did this happen to us? What did we do to deserve this? … Where is God?
Luke’s narrative on the walk to Emmaus speaks first and foremost to such tragic human losses, and what Christ would do for those who mourn. With empathy, the Risen Jesus walks with these two hurting disciples. Empathy is a sign of a true leader who, in this case, knows better where the two followers ought to be going better than they do and does something about it. Empathy is a strong element in Luke’s Gospel, and it stands out again early in the Emmaus story.
Into that dispirited company of two grieving bodies on the road, a stranger inserts himself. But this is Jesus the Lord, the Son of God, who comes as a cordial for tired hearts, for he has said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In doing so, he sets the prime example for the Christian work of compassion and empathy. In the best possible Christian tradition which is currently seen most prominently in the life example of Pope Francis, Christians minister by walking life’s journey with people who are hurting, conversing sincerely with them, patiently listening to their stories, offering company and consolation, friendship and solidarity. As Jesus walks with the two hurting disciples, he seeks to put himself in their shoes, to understand their emotional state, and to feel what they feel in their lives, with their frame of reference.
The unspoken background bears repeating. In following Jesus of Nazareth, these two disciples, like so many others who have already found him inspiring, have experienced a serious change in their own lives. To begin with, to follow Jesus is to interrupt one’s normal routines because Jesus was an itinerant preacher who preferred to travel from village to village to preach the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). Yet they persisted in following Jesus because of a special pay-off from which it was so difficult to divest oneself, and that is, the daily discovery of a whole new vision in life. In a way that brought fresh vitality to every aspect of their existence, they have discovered such new dimensions to their ordinary everyday activities that they could experience the reality of forgiveness, healing, and love. In simple everyday lives, Jesus’ words and actions embodied great power that touched the very core of their humanity. With Jesus, life had become something worth living. He had been the human face of God, in whom alone the human hearts could find rest.
But now, he is dead. Even more, he died an acutely painful and humiliating death after extreme violence and hatred were committed against him. The One held in high esteem by God and humans was reduced to a common criminal, crucified between two common criminals outside the city gates. He had been reduced to nothing, and worse. They had lost that unique Jesus of Nazareth. In losing Jesus, they felt lost. They found themselves in the dark pit of human travail – the sense of “lostness” – living aimlessly, hopelessly, in a void. That void is acute spiritual emptiness. It is a depressing spiritual darkness.
Nouwen incisively describes human “lostness”:
- “… nobody can escape agonizing losses that are part of our everyday existence – the loss of our dreams. We had thought so long of ourselves as successful, liked, and deeply loved. We had hoped for a life of generosity, service, and self-sacrifice. We had planned to be forgiving, caring, and always gentle people. We had a vision of ourselves as reconcilers and peacemakers. But somehow – we aren’t even sure of what happened – we lost our dreams. We became worrying, anxious people clinging to the few things we had collected and exchanging with one another news of the political, social, and ecclesiastical scandals of the day. It is this lost of spirit that is often the hardest to acknowledge and most difficult to confess.” [pp.25-26]
Those women are doing what Jesus wants to see them do who sit with a grieving widow, holding her hands at the funeral wake, silently shedding tears together with her. Of importance is not talking much, but just being with her, and comforting her by their presence. This is ministry of compassion at its best, where empathy is conveyed, not necessarily by many words, but by warming hearts and growing faith.
The apex of all the losses, however, is occupied by the loss of faith. Without faith, we do not “see” the resurrected Lord and cannot recognize him when he joins our company. Without faith, we speak like “foolish men”. Without faith, we are “slow of heart” to believe what the prophets of old had already spoken about Jesus, the Suffering-Servant of God.
In the midst of all this pain of lostness, Christians yearn from deep within their hearts for the gentle and consoling voice that assures them: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4); “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21). And so in the midst of tears and heart-pains, a relief comes. The Lord is there in person, or vicariously represented by us, his hands and feet. The journey that starts with pain and lostness, will end with burning hearts. In empathy, Jesus came to those who mourn; in empathy, we are to do the same.
- Common in our own community are those saintly blessed women, doing what Jesus wants to see them do, who sit with a grieving widow, holding her hands at the funeral wake, silently shedding tears together with her. Of importance is not talking much, but just being with the one going through a devastating loss, and by their presence and gentle touch comforting her. This is ministry of compassion in true and ordinary best, where empathy is conveyed, not necessarily by many words, but by warming hearts, growing faith, and preserving hope.
Emmaus gives us an itinerary of faith. It starts with pain. The road does not end in hopelessness. From pain, we can get to faith and hope. But we need help. The Resurrected Lord shows the urgency and the way to accompany people who are hurting.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, January 2021. All rights reserved.
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