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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Real Life is Happening Now

Luke 24:13-16
That very day, the first day of the week,
two of Jesus’ disciples were going
to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus,
and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.


This week, the Church directs our attention to that famous story of the two disciples travelling to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. The great irony of this passage, of course, is that the disciples think they’re speaking to some random traveler and ― depressed after the crucifixion ― complain how their “Jesus of Nazareth” figure turned out merely to have been “a prophet, a man powerful in deed and speech,” but nothing more (Lk 24:19). The random traveler, of course, is Jesus himself, risen from the dead. 

We learn, too, that the disciples “were prevented from recognizing him” (Lk 24:16). The Greek is more startling when it’s translated literally. It says “their eyes were bound…” The greatest joy that they could possibly conceive is standing in front of them, conversing and even eating with them, and yet they do not see.
So “they stood still, looking sad” (Lk 24:17).

Many people have asked when reading this story: who exactly is preventing them from seeing? Is it God? Is it the disciples themselves? Who exactly is doing the binding? The Fathers of the Church said it was a little of both. Jesus did conceal himself, but the stubbornness of the disciples did not exactly give them eyes to see. [1] They had heard the women that morning claim that Jesus had risen, but we’re told that “their words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Fundamentally, it is the disciples who did the binding.

There is something oddly human about the disciples’ binding up their eyes in this moment. We are always binding up our eyes to the things in front of us. We tend to resist seeing that our lives are actually quite remarkable, that God visits us and walks alongside us. We do this all the time in our ordinary lives. We tend to resist, as these two disciples did, the idea that God visits us precisely in our present circumstances.

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote that humans always think “real life is happening elsewhere.” Here's one way to interpret him: we get trapped into imagining that we’ll only be able to start really living once we get someplace else. I had students, for instance, who were convinced their “real life” would only begin when they'd get their dream job, or when they’d marry their dream girl, or when they’d finally figure out who they really are. This is a lie. Real life is happening here and now. And, for whatever reason, just like the two
disciples, we prevent our eyes from seeing this. We have bound them shut in a thousand different ways. And it’s not just the students. We prefer to tell ourselves that our “real life” is not being lived because we aren’t in good health, for instance, or because our spouses or families are difficult. If I could just feel better ― we tell ourselves ― then I would really begin living. “Real life is happening elsewhere.” [2] 

The exact same thing is happening, I think, in the context of this pandemic. We get trapped into thinking we cannot really live our lives until this quarantine is over. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been tempted into thinking that my real life has been quarantined, put on lock down. I’ve been thinking that real life will start up again sometime down the road and that what we’re going through right now doesn’t really count. But this is the same lie. 

And the worst thing we can do is imagine that we cannot actually live a real or
full Christian life under these circumstances. The Mass has been taken away from us and so none of this ― we could suppose ― is our real Christian life. We cannot pray in the churches; we cannot go to confession. The real Christian life must be happening elsewhere, down the road in some unknown future.

This is a lie. Your real Christian life is happening now. And by this I do not just mean that now is the time to pray at home. Of course we can pray at home. But perhaps, too, this very unique time of quarantine has exposed even more about us? Perhaps it has exposed some of our weaknesses with more vividness? Perhaps it has sharpened some of the anxieties that were already so difficult to manage? Perhaps you’re mourning? Or angry about things you’re seeing in the world? Here’s the thing: that is the Christian life. Wrestling with weakness, managing anxiety, mourning, even showing indignation about injustices ― figuring out how to deal with these things, how to be merciful with yourself as you struggle through them, how to place them into God’s hands ― that is the Christian life. 

What has this very strange time shown you about yourself? And maybe the more important question to ask is this: am I doing anything that, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, is preventing me from recognizing Jesus in all this mess? Indeed, this
mess is the Christian life. Am I doing something that has bound my eyes from seeing it that way? Have I been telling myself that this time of quarantine doesn’t really count? that real life is happening elsewhere? that my Christian life can start again once this is through? Because all of that is a lie.

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] Saint Gregory the Great: “[Jesus] refrained from manifesting to them a form which they might recognize, doing outwardly in the eyes of the body what was done by themselves inwardly in the eyes of the mind. For they in themselves inwardly both loved and doubted. Therefore to them as they talked of Him He exhibited His presence, but as they doubted of Him, He concealed the appearance which they knew” (Homilae XL in Evangelia, #23).

[2] See Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace (New York: St. Paul’s, 2002), 42.