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Third Sunday of Easter (A), 26.04.20: Interpreting suffering with Jesus

Readings: Acts 2:14,22-33; Psalm 15(16):1-2,5,7-11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35

No matter how many funerals I conduct, the grief of each and every family is unique and raw. It’s unique because we are all unique. It’s raw because the pain of separation which death causes can’t be glossed over.

Think for a moment what the grief of the apostles must have been like when Jesus died. Think of them as individuals. Each one had a unique rapport with Jesus. He had called each one by name. Each of them will soon have come to know how he loved them, the special way in which he treated each of them. They probably never felt as loved by anyone before or since. Each will have had his moments alone with Jesus, sharing confidences about themselves and their families and their life as they walked the ways of Palestine, during an afternoon rest or swim, or at night before sleeping. No-one will ever have listened to each of them like Jesus. No-one will ever have understood them so well, advised them so wisely, grasped their pain and sorrows so compassionately. They will have had fun and laughed and sung songs with him, becoming familiar with his manner of talking and walking and singing, learning his favourite food and drink. Jesus will have leaned on each of them at different times for different things, They will have seen him tired, angry, joyful, afraid, at prayer and asleep. Each will have known himself to be so special in the eyes and heart of Jesus, yet no-one more special than Jesus himself.

In a word, each of them will have been loved beyond words and understanding by the carpenter and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, and each of them will have loved him as they never loved anyone else, maybe not even their own selves.

That Jesus should then suddenly be torn away from them, betrayed by one of their own; for them to have abandoned him in his moment of greatest need with thoughts only for themselves; for him to be mercilessly tortured and brutally crucified: talk about shock! Talk about trauma! Talk about tragedy! They would all have been in a deep state of the rawest of raw grief. Theirs would be a very serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And so, it’s no wonder they couldn’t believe the women who said he was alive. It’s no wonder they either huddled together in the upper room or left Jerusalem, to run away from the horror of it all and not least from the horror at themselves for their fickle-heartedness.

But, of course, Jesus knew and loved them still so well, still so personally. He knew that they would look at everything that happened in terms of what they thought was its calamitous end: his death, the death of their dreams, the death of that oh! so special love and friendship.

And so, with exquisite sensitivity, Jesus gently and gradually makes himself known to them again after his resurrection. Not in a blaze of glory, but by beginning to walk with them all over again as he had at the very beginning, so patiently, so lovingly. And in walking with the disciples of Emmaus, he gradually explains the correct way to interpret all that had happened. The suffering of Christ was, by the Father’s will, simply necessary for him to reach his glory. His suffering and death fully plunged him into the extremes of human experience so that, from within those extremes, he could bring us to experience the extremes of the divine experience, the life and love of the Trinity.

And as he opened their minds to understand, he set their hearts on fire. They were beginning to sense once more that blissful warmth which they had had with him before. Jesus then completes his catechesis by revealing himself in the breaking of bread. In explaining the Scriptures, he had taken them from Calvary back, yet forward, to the Last Supper, the Mass, from the bloody sacrifice to the unbloody sacrifice, from death to resurrection, from earth to heaven.

After that, he appears to them for 40 days and on the 50th day sends the Spirit of Pentecost. And through all this, he not only lets the Apostles recover everything of their loving friendship with him before his death, but he also elevates it to the highest level imaginable by sending them to witness to Him to the ends of the earth.

In any time of grief and suffering, it is Jesus who opens our minds to understand and our hearts to burn with love. He doesn’t just put them into perspective, but shows us the way through grief and suffering with light for our minds and fire for our hearts.

He won’t waive the suffering away but will enable us to accept it by seeing it, by interpreting it as our, yes, necessary way to glory, too. He reinterprets suffering by transforming it from the inside, by enduring it in love. It is no longer mindless misery but the privileged instrument of love and redemption.

The coronavirus pandemic is being interpreted by some as the end of the world, by others as punishment for the sins of our contemporary society, by others as a predictable blip in human history, and by others in other ways. But if we ask the Jesus of Emmaus to interpret it for us, He invites us to see it as part of the same necessary suffering that was his so that we together with Him might enter into glory.

Does that lessen the pain or grief? No, but it joins this pandemic to the Cross and to Him who hung upon it. It therefore subjects the pandemic to the logic, the goal of the Cross, which is the glory of the resurrection. There is no question that to see it in this way requires faith in Jesus Christ, suffered, dead and risen. But it is only faith in Jesus that will bring us to conquer death and suffering. He invites us not to be slow and sluggish of heart as were the disciples of Emmaus, but to be more like the women who saw him both crucified and risen and threw themselves with utter confidence into his arms. The saving Cross of Jesus is at work in this pandemic. The glory of his love is seen in all who are spending themselves for the sick and dying and to find ways to defeat it. Somehow, Jesus is working out our salvation and glory in the midst of this pandemic. He conquered death in love. He will conquer the coronavirus in love, too.

By the time it’s over, may our faith have brought each of us into that deep and special friendship with Jesus which the apostles first enjoyed. And may we be transformed, too, like the Apostles, to become courageous witnesses of that friendship to the ends of the earth, or at least to the end of the street.

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