By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
May God bless all of us here tonight, and this wonderful city of Madrid!
There’s something very “Catholic” in staying up this late. We Christians take seriously the words of St Paul when he says that we are “all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (I Thess 5:5). But we also know that God has often used darkness to show his love and saving power.
The Liturgy of the Hours in Spanish has a wonderful hymn to God the Father that we don’t have in English. It praises the beauty of the night, and it’s worth translating.
The night is the time of salvation.
At night You celebrated the Passover of Your people,
while in darkness there swept the extermination.
At night, three times Samuel heard Your name;
at night were dreams, Your deepest language.
At night, in a manger was born Your Word;
at night they announced Him, the angel and the star.
Night stood witness to Christ in the tomb;
night saw the glory of his Resurrection.
The night is the time of salvation.
Tonight should remind us of a night 2,000 years ago, narrated by the Gospel of Luke (Lk 24:13-35.) The Gospel tells us that two of Jesus’ disciples are returning from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. They’re crushed and frightened after witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
But on the road to Emmaus, they meet a Stranger who explains the true meaning of the Scriptures to them. The disciples, afraid to continue on the road during the night, ask the Man to take shelter with them at an inn.
The Stranger agrees and stays with them, and after the breaking of the bread, the disciples recognize him as Jesus -- who then immediately disappears. Filled with joy and on fire again in their faith, they ignore the darkness they feared just a few minutes before. They run back to Jerusalem to tell the Good News to their friends.
Pope Benedict gave us a great explanation of this Scripture passage during Easter 2008. He made four points.
First, he noted this: Archaeologists have never found the location of Emmaus, and that holds a certain value for us. It “suggests that Emmaus is really everywhere; the road that leads [to Emmaus] is the path of every Christian, indeed, every human being.” (Benedict XVI, Regina Coeli April 6, 2008)
Second, Benedict explained that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were clearly in a crisis of faith: “The use of the past tense by one of the unknown disciples says it all: ‘We hoped, we believed, we followed . . . but now everything, even Jesus of Nazareth, who had shown himself to be a prophet mighty in deed and word, even he failed, and we were left disappointed’.”
The truth is that Jesus is always walking next to us, loving us as a brother, encouraging us as a friend, explaining our lives from his eternal perspective. But just as He treated the disciples at Emmaus, He never forces himself on the human heart. He is the loving, humble God who, as described in the Book of Revelation, stands at the door and knocks. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
God made us free; and being free, we get to choose whether we listen to the voice of Jesus or not. We can invite Him into our lives or lock Him out. We need to freely open the door of our hearts to his presence. Until then, He continues to knock and wait.
As his third point, the Holy Father reminded us that Jesus repeats the miracle of Emmaus every day, in our world and in our midst. Emmaus is not just a memory from the past. Emmaus is alive, here and now. Benedict says that “On our own journeys, the risen Jesus is a traveling companion who rekindles in our hearts the warmth of faith and hope and the breaking of the bread of eternal life.” But again, we need to allow Jesus to do this miracle in our lives. He will never impose his love on us.
As his fourth and final point, Pope Benedict said: While Emmaus is a blessing, it is also a challenge. Benedict believes that “this beautiful evangelical text already contains the structure of the Mass: in the first part, listening to the Word through the Scriptures; in the second [part,] through the Eucharistic liturgy and communion . . . Christ is present in the sacrament of his Body and his Blood.” But receiving the Eucharist is much more than just a religious ritual. It has consequences; profoundly serious and life-transforming consequences.
The joy felt by the disciples in recognizing Jesus at Emmaus must have been intense. But as deep and personal as it was, it also compelled them to act. Their joy was alive; it was restless; it made them run back through the darkness to bring the Good News to other disciples. The disciples embodied what the Prophet Jeremiah meant when he said: “[God’s] word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer 20:9).
That kind of joy is a foretaste of heaven. It’s what God intends for all of us. But we should also remember that in this world, feelings can be fickle. They’re hot and cold; they come and go. Ultimately, it’s not how you feel that shapes how genuine your encounter with Jesus is. Your relationship with Jesus Christ will be determined by how much you’re transformed into Him and how much you burn in the desire to bring Him to others – in other words, by your actions in sharing the Gospel with others, by serving the poor and the needy, by defending the unborn child, by building a culture that supports and encourages the growth of Christian families.
Saint Teresa of Avila and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta are both great examples of how the power of Jesus operates in our lives. Teresa of Avila, a daughter of Spain and one of the greatest saints of the Church, struggled through 30 years of a dry and frustrating prayer life. But her fidelity to Jesus and her dedication to reforming the Carmelite religious order were intense and unstoppable.
Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, as we learned after her death, suffered through a long and very painful period of feeling spiritually empty. Despite this, she created one of the most fruitful Catholic religious communities in history, devoted to serving the poorest of the poor.
This brings us to another, final lesson we can learn from the Emmaus story, especially the way artists have portrayed it in classic art.
Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter, did two versions of the supper at Emmaus. In both, the disciples are filled with joy and awe. Yet in both, a servant seems oblivious to what is taking place at the table.
Another very famous painter, the Italian Caravaggio, also created a scene showing two amazed disciples with a serene Jesus. But his work was criticized by people of his time for “lacking decorum” because the man serving the table in the painting seems bored and wears a hat – a sign of disrespect.
The great French painter Delacroix showed a dark room lit by a golden halo that surrounds Jesus while He dramatically breaks the bread. But again, in a staircase just behind the scene, a woman in the painting is shown who completely ignores the miracle happening right in front of her.
These famous paintings of Emmaus carry a warning: It doesn’t matter how close we are to the presence of Jesus. We can still completely ignore Him, and therefore never experience the transforming power of His love.
It’s not enough to be next to Jesus. We need to be with Jesus, and in Jesus. And no one can ever be fully “with” Jesus if she or he rejects his Catholic Church, the Church Jesus founded precisely to act in his name, to fulfill his promise, so that He would remain with us until the end of time.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist that we will worship tonight comes to us through the power given to the Church by Jesus himself. In adoring Jesus Christ, we’ll be celebrating the mystery of his Church as well.
And when the Holy Father comes to us at this World Youth Day, we’ll be welcoming him not as a just another human leader or “superstar,” but as the Successor of Peter, the visible head of Christ’s Church -- this Church defined not by the failures and sins of us, her children, but by being the sacrament of salvation that draws humanity to the experience of Emmaus every day.
So may God grant each one of us, on our personal road to Emmaus, the gift of acquiring, as Pope Benedict says, “a deeper faith… a faith robust because it is from the Word of God and the Eucharist, not human ideas.”
and You will find ready the light of our lamps.
The night is the time of salvation. Amen.