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Third Sunday of Easter, Year A: the burning heart

“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” Think of that image: a burning heart. What is that fire? It can certainly be the fire of love. It can also be the fire enkindled when you begin to understand something or someone more deeply, leading to the fire of love. It’s a fire with two flames merged into one, of knowledge mingled with love. It’s a fire that consumes your heart, that is, your very person drawing you more and more into the person of the other.

Think of when someone you know suddenly opens up to you and reveals to you their deepest truth, their problems, their dreams, their shame, their love. That is not a knowledge which stays in your head, like the definition of a word, but passes into your heart. Indeed, the other person himself passes into your heart and sets it alight with a new knowledge of the heart.

What is it that ignites the fire in the disciples of Emmaus? The text tells us: “as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us.” First, “he talked to us.” Imagine Jesus talking. How does his voice sound? His accent, his language, the shape of his mouth, the expression on his face, the use of his hands as he speaks? He is a true man. He communicates, he wants us to know what he has to say, what he knows, who he is, why he is interested in you. He wants to be like that person who suddenly opens up to us, the very sound of his voice transferring into our ears and down into our hearts the most secret truth of his person.

Second, “he explained the scriptures to us.” At one point in his ministry, Jesus reproaches the Jews for not believing in him. He says, “you search the scriptures believing that in them you will find life. These same scriptures testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me for life.” So, when Jesus explains the scriptures to the disciples of Emmaus, he is basically explaining himself to them, he is breathing into them that life which the Jews refused. As when you know and love a person deeply you carry that person in your heart, Jesus by speaking places himself deeply into their hearts. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and all the scriptures is the power who implants Jesus in their hearts and ignites that fire of deep and loving knowledge of Christ.

There is another detail. The disciples say, “did not our hearts burn within us as he talked us on the road?” What road? The road to Emmaus, yes, but the road understood as the journey of life, the journey towards death and to God beyond death, the journey of growth in human, spiritual, emotional and Christian maturity. The disciples of Emmaus had been talking about what had happened to Jesus in Jerusalem, his death and reported resurrection. In other words, they were still interested in him, they still had hopes albeit battered and bruised. They were still preoccupied with Jesus. You have to wonder if Jesus would have met them on the road had they no longer showed interest in him. Although they had doubts and disappointments with regard to Jesus, Jesus took these and worked with them to the point that their fragile openness to him led to the experience of that burning heart.

On our journey of many levels, it is vital to keep an interest in Jesus, to feed it, to stir it up. When Jesus gave us the Eucharist, he said, “do this in memory of me.” Jesus does not want to be forgotten, not for his sake, but for ours. It is we who suffer if we forget him, for without him, we will have no burning hearts. People lapse from faith or outright reject it or relegate it to a secondary priority in their lives at best. But we must never forget Christ and the deeds of suffering, death and resurrection which he went through out of love for us. So long as we remember all this, there is always the opportunity for Jesus to meet us again on our road, to speak to our hearts, to explain his truth and love to us, to ignite that fire which will flame up to eternity.

And that the fire will flame up is certain. In the Upper Room, the fire of Christ, the fire of the Spirit, rushed up and out from the hearts of the apostles to appear in the shape of tongues above their heads. Imagine your tongue on fire as you speak. It was the tongue of Jesus that had been on fire and he passed that fire into the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus. But the fire was not intended to stay there. It was intended to rise up into their mouths so that they, in their turn, could speak to all the nations and explain the scriptures to them on the road of history. It is the fire of the truth of Jesus Christ, of the Father’s plan for the human race. It is the fire which burns sin away and ignites a bonfire of grace in its place. It is the fire of the Divine Mercy, of the unsearchable riches of the love and heart of Christ. It is the fire kept in the hearth and home which is the Catholic Church. It is the fire of which Jesus once said, “I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it was already blazing!”

What has happened to our burning hearts as baptized and confirmed, as married and ordained, as forgiven and healed, as fed by the ever fresh and warm bread of the Eucharist? The disciples of Emmaus felt that Christ had failed. Maybe we feel the same under the pressures of life today? Maybe we feel that it is the Church that has failed or that quite simply has nothing to offer. However real or justified these feelings may be, they neither change the truth of Christ’s resurrection nor the constancy of his promise to be with us, to come and meet us on the road, until the end of time. Christ has not failed! He is risen, he is truly risen, his fire is blazing! The Church has not failed and cannot fail, for she belongs to the Risen Christ and he has united her to himself for ever. In the stormy waters of history, the bark of Peter may be fuller or emptier, nearer or farther from shipwreck, at times adrift and at times on a sure course. But, as Christ came to meet the disciples of Emmaus, and as he came walking on the stormy waters to the captain of the ship, Peter, so he continues to woo his Bride the Church to himself, to sustain her with that outstretched arm and to confound all attempts to sink her.

It seems to me that we are in a time in which we need to rediscover how to let Jesus meet us on our road, individually, as spouses, as families, as parish and as Church. We need to let him talk to us and communicate himself to us. We need to let him reignite that fire in our hearts and in our bellies which enabled the disciples of Emmaus eventually to recognize him in the Eucharist and receive his Spirit at Pentecost. It is a question, not of finding time, but of making time for quiet prayer, for the reading of the Gospel, for calming the din around and within, for making clear and courageous decisions to give priority to Christ in our day, in our thinking and deciding, in our family life. Look and consider with a grateful heart how much Christ has done for us. Look how important he let us be for Him. Surely, we can, in response, make a little effort to lay aside some of the unnecessary things which we let claim so much of our time and energy, and give that time and energy gladly to listen to Jesus speak to us on our road, explain and lay bare his soul to us and ignite our hearts with his divine fire?