Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Road to Emmaus: Meeting men where they are at!

Human beings have a strong tendency towards social conformity, that is, they are inclined to do what others are doing. This tendency is even stronger than our instinct to help others in need. An overwhelming temptation is to associate truth with what the greater number of people believe.

After centuries of oppression by empires and foreign nations, political liberation became increasingly important to the Jewish people. With that, the common hope for a political Messiah emerged; one who had the political and military power to ward off Israel's enemies. It just so happen that this hope colored the interpretation of Scripture by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes. As more and more Jewish leaders bought into this politicized version of the Messiah, it naturally followed that the average Jew of the first century believed as they did. Therefore, during our Lord's public ministry, even with miraculous signs and wonders being performed, the Jewish people had a hard time accepting Jesus Christ as their Messiah.

Nevertheless, the preaching of the Gospel was to usher in, not an earthly kingdom, as was expected, but a spiritual kingdom. This spiritual kingdom- a new people of God -was the real source of liberation. Sin and Satan had to be taken down and done away with before Caesar could be dealt with. Or to say it another way, spiritual liberation is the condition upon which political liberation is rendered secure. Christ himself asked, “How can anyone enter a strong man's house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.” Christ would first have to tie up Satan and cast him out. After all, it was Satan who was the "ruler of the world," the one who patrolled the earth according to the prophet Job. Indeed, it was he who proved to be more of a nemesis to mankind than Caesar himself.

Enter Cleopas and "the other disciple." Cleopas was one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who decided to call it quits and head home. Unfortunately for him, he was no exception to the conventional wisdom of his day. Feeling let down, he had come to the conclusion that the crucifixion of Christ marked the end of a good thing. The biblical idea that the Messiah would be the sacrificial Lamb of God "who takes away the sins of the world" could not be further away from Cleopas’ mind. Good Friday for Cleopas was the end, not the beginning of the work of Christ. Nevertheless, what he considered to be a failure on Calvary, God would use to save and bless mankind.

This pattern of the unexpected repeats itself over and over in God’s plan for his people. This is why we can never be sure that setbacks and detours are failures in the eyes of God. In fact, it could be just what Divine Providence required for his purpose.

I digress here, but according to St. Jerome, Cleopas was the brother of St. Joseph and one of the seventy disciples; the other disciple was thought be a man by the name of Simeon. Tradition has it that Cleopas was martyred for his Christian faith in a castle located in Emmaus, which was his hometown. What was originally a scandal to him, namely, the crucifixion of his Nephew, foretold the manner in which he would die. Indeed, it was in Emmaus where his death would glorify God.

At any rate, when the two disciples embarked upon the seven mile walk to Emmaus, they were also walking away from something. With a downtrodden spirit, they were walking away from Jerusalem, away from where Christ had risen from the dead and away from the place where the Apostles had begun to fellowship with their Risen Lord. To be sure, they were about to walk away from the most important events that were yet to unfold.

Cleopas and Simeon (if we accept St. Jerome's account) were conversing about their dashed hopes when Jesus entered the picture. Notice that Jesus, who was originally taken as a mysterious foreigner, did not initiate a new discussion with these gentlemen. That is, he did not ask them to talk about what they were not already talking about. Instead, he joined the conversation and took it to another level. From their discouraged stupor, Jesus transformed their misunderstanding of the Messiah into one which accorded with God's intent. Making reference to Scripture, he enlightened their minds and inflamed their hearts as to who and what the Messiah actually was. With that, the two disciples were filled with hope and new strength.

But first it is important to note that this approach- joining the conversation and taking it to a more enlightened level -serves as a good model for the New Evangelization. Catholic evangelists, both clergy and laity, need not take people off of their own turf. We too can enter into their conversations, interests and concerns. From there we can use the Light of Gospel to interpret and give meaning to their daily affairs, demonstrating that whatever good they possess or desire can be perfected and given its rightful context. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, grace does not replace nature, it perfects it!

We make a mistake when we expect unbelievers to join our conversation without making any effort to join theirs; or when we answer- not the questions people are asking –but our own questions. It seems to me that through the Emmaus story the Holy Spirit is biding the twenty-first century Catholic to enter into the talks around the kitchen table at home, the water cooler at work and even in the public square itself. But if this is to bear fruit we cannot leave the discussion where we find it. We, like Christ on the road to Emmaus, have to take the conversation to higher level. We cannot be afraid to introduce the reality of the supernatural or the hope of heaven or even speak the name of Christ. By doing this, we too can turn people around and get them walking back to where the Rise Christ is.