Last week, NASA published what I thought was an amazing report showing that the human heart is changed when we go to space. Apparently microgravity, which is the weaker gravity astronauts experience when they are orbiting the earth, encourages the growth of a certain hormone that helps our hearts to regenerate and refresh.
Isn’t that fascinating? As the weightiness of the world gets lifted off our shoulders, our hearts naturally know how to heal.
This week our scripture is the story of the two disciples on the long road to Emmaus, following the crucifixion of Jesus. Talk about feeling burdened and downcast and troubled. They were heartbroken, despairing, grieving that this great hope they’d been living with—an amazing new prophet of God who can heal and save and lead! People were calling him the Messiah!—this astounding hope that none of them expected to see in their lifetimes had been devastatingly stripped away.
They lamented, they shared their heartbreak, they struggled with questions that must have been on everyone’s mind at that time: Why didn’t Jesus stop it? Was their oppression ever going to end? If someone like Jesus couldn’t change things for the better, what hope was there?
As they mourn and talk and travel, a stranger comes alongside them. Luke lets us know it’s Jesus, of course, but to these two disciples, he is just a fellow traveler. Here’s how Luke tells this part of the story:
As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19 “What things?” he asked.
And they begin to tell the story.
As the bereavement coordinator at hospice, I have worked with grief and grieving people for many years. One thing we know that helps when we’re grieving is having the opportunity to tell the story. We need to talk it out. We need to share with another living being how badly we hurt, how unfair the loss is, how much we didn’t choose it. We need to be able to confess that life feels sad and awful and that we can’t find our hope. We need to be able to say that we feel life, and maybe God, has let us down, stolen away a promise, not made good on the expectation of our faith.
Being able to tell the story—and tell the truth—is very important as we grieve, because unshared and unwitnessed, our grief can solidify into anger and resentment, which can take us in directions not consistent with healing.
I think it’s interesting that Luke tells us this story of the travelers soon after the crucifixion has happened, so the disciples were still feeling shocked that it happened, exploring together the reality of the situation and what it might mean. Into that moment, Jesus arrives as a person they don’t recognize, and invites them to tell the story.
How they choose to respond in that key moment is an important choice. If they can express their sadness, their heartache, their confusion honestly, healing will begin. If they push away the feeling of grief and choose for outrage instead—which can feel better in the moment because anger has more energy than sadness—they will get swept into a path that will likely get much worse before it gets better. If it gets better.
As they walk, they pour out their hearts to this stranger, telling him that all seems lost, that everything they’d been hoping for as a people of God had been stripped away. They tell the story of their woundedness and despair.
I have long thought that if we were able to be more honest with one another about our grief—if we could mourn the job loss and the children growing up and the changes in our bodies and the losses of those dear to us—the world would be a healthier place. Because even in normal times, grief touches all our lives in myriad ways. As things change around us—even when they change for the better—we are constantly letting things go as we open to the new. That process, that refreshing involves loss as our schedules change, our families change, our lives change.
And now, in the middle of this crisis, we see grief on such a massive and global scale that it is truly difficult to get our hearts around the magnitude of the loss. In this country alone, how can we make sense of 65,000 deaths? Each person a beloved member of a family which is now swallowed up in a time of grief—losses that we struggle to deal with without the familiar comforting traditions that help us heal. We aren’t gathering together, sharing meals and prayers, having services as a group. We are more separate, more isolated than ever, even in the most heartbreaking and intimate of human moments.
Into this, a stranger comes. He invites us to tell him our stories. Our stories of loss, or limitation. Our narratives shot through with fear and annoyance and uncertainty. We might not recognize the divinity of the one offering us this invitation, but we should accept it just the same. It is God coming to us at just the right time, giving us a moment of pause to begin the healing of our hearts and point us on a road to deeper understanding and a stronger faith. Through our care for one another, God shows his protective love and his desire to be with us, to be a part of our losses, disappointments, fears, and blessings. Our minds and hearts may be elsewhere for a time—especially when we are struggling with fear and pain—but God is always present, hearing us, responding to us, traveling with us.
After they had shared their story, Jesus began to shine the light of understanding into their thinking, telling them the story of the Messiah and why he had to be born into the world and leave the way he did. He told them about Moses and the prophets and why it was necessary for things to occur just the way they had.
And then, with evening coming on, the disciples asked the stranger to say and have dinner with them. And as Luke says,
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
The scripture says Jesus then simply vanished from their sight. I picture the disciples sitting there dumbfounded—did they dream it? Did they have too much wine?—and then saying, in wonder, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They knew they’d been in the presence of Christ, no matter what their eyes were now telling them. Their hearts had been lifted. Their understanding had deepened. They had been changed by the presence and love of God and started on a healing path toward understanding and renewal.
In his book about Saint Francis, the author Nikos Kazantzakis writes,
“The heart is God’s servant. The mind does nothing but talk, ask questions, search for meaning; the heart does not talk, does not ask questions, does not search for meaning. Silently, it moves toward God and surrenders. The heart is God’s servant.”
Their hearts were burning within them on the way, responding to the presence of God in their midst, drawing them closer to the source of Light and love and healing that had never left their side.
We too are on a journey to a destination unknown. The old world as we knew it has changed and we—the old us we were just weeks ago—has changed along with it. With this realization comes both grief and hope. Grief for the things we miss, the changes that are hard, the losses we’re enduring. And hope for the way God’s goodness continues to be present, in the kind and compassionate acts of others, in the presence of God’s peace and calm, in the moments of prayer that lift us beyond the gravity of this world’s struggles.
Let’s remember this week to take the time to pour out our hearts to God, to share the truth about what’s hard and what’s joyful and the thousands of moments in-between. As we tell God our stories, the light shines in, easing the pain and leading us toward healing. Suddenly we see that Christ is right here with us; he’s been with us all along—it’s a truth our hearts, as servants of God, have always known.