I was going through a desk drawer in my room looking for a AA battery for my ROKU remote. It was a kind of catch-all drawer, filled with all kinds things: old checkbooks, keyrings, rubber bands, some old ID cards. I came across a wedding program from a bunch of years ago, for which I was the officiating priest. My eyes scanned the program and its list of participants, and stopped at the ringbearer. I smiled, remembering him.
He was a cute little kid named Ryan, all of five years old then. During the wedding, Ryan’s mom looked on proudly as he walked up the aisle. His dad wasn’t there. He was a firefighter and had died in 911, trying to save people caught in one of the buildings. Ryan did a great job, got the rings to the altar, charming the whole church in the process. He handed over the rings, and then threw both his hands in the air and said “Yipeeee!”. His delighted cry startled everyone for a moment, and then the whole place filled with laughter. The nervous bride and groom were suddenly at ease, and you could feel a kind of genuine joy descend upon all the good hearts in the room.
Later, when the Mass and the wedding was over and the bride and groom were in a receiving line at the back of the church, I was cleaning up around the altar. Ryan came over to talk to me. “Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said back. He hesitated, looking at me doing my thing, but I could tell that he had something on his mind. “What up, Ryan”, I asked. He suddenly got shy, and looked at the ground, kicking his feet on the wedding runner. Then he blurted it out. “I saw my Daddy.” I stopped my business, and went over to him. “You did?”. “Uh huh,” he said. “Where did you see him?”, I asked. He pointed way up high, above the choir loft. I hadn’t noticed before, it was a big church, but there was a statue of Jesus spotlighted up there, both hands up in the air. Jesus, resurrected. “What was he doing, Ryan?”, I asked. He said that his daddy was standing next to Jesus, that they were talking to each other and laughing and having a good time. “My daddy waved at me,” he said. Really?, I said. Uh huh. Ryan looked up at the statue. So did I. Jesus was standing there, arms raised. He looked happy, and peaceful. I asked Ryan if his daddy was still standing there with Jesus. “Of course not, silly,” he said. “Yeah, of course not,” I said, “What was I thinking?” He took another look at the statue, and then he said, “OK, I gotta go.” OK, I said, see ya. And he went running to the back of the church to find his mommy and receive all the oooos and ahhhs that little ringbearers receive at a wedding.
The wedding party and all the guests departed. I was all alone in the church, and I remember looking back up at the statue of Jesus. Maybe he would blink or widen his smile slightly so I could see his teeth. Maybe he would speak to me like he spoke to St Francis of Assisi from the cross above the altar at the little church of San Damiano. But no, the statue didn’t come to life for me, but I really hoped and wanted to believe that Ryan had received that gift.
I found the AA batteries, and as I installed them in the ROKU TV remote, I thought about little Ryan. Adding up the years, I guessed that he is probably in college, somewhere. How much of his life had been marked by the death of his father? I wondered if he would even remember what he had seen and heard on the day of the wedding, or if he had seen his daddy or Jesus again anytime after the appearance in the church.
In the days after my mama died, I returned again and again to the cemetery, to be near to the place where what physically remained of her was buried forever. I was surprised at how sad I was, and how much of a body blow I had sustained. For all my professed faith, I felt hopeless staring into the abyss of death, and found myself questioning my own purpose in life in the darkness that followed. I wondered too if I had done enough for my mom in her illness, some guilt for not being able to save her from the effects of her illness.
On the day after a funeral of someone you love, after the funeral home and the church and the cemetery and the luncheon--after all the awkward expressions of sorrow have been spoken, all the tears shed, after all the friends and relatives have gone home... the world returns to its normal pace of things. The garbage man comes and wakes you up with a racing engine and clattering cans, Macy's stages a one day blow-out sale, Verizon calls to get you to sign up for a new cell phone plan, Dr Phil interviews a woman who says her husband is a real-life Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, your refrigerator suddenly quits on you and you can't find anyone to come out and fix it.
The day after the funeral is perhaps worse than the day before because you realize that life is going to have to go on the same way it always has except that of course it will never be the same again. And feelings of guilt arise—it’s not fair that life goes on, that my life will go on. And you wonder if you did enough, loved enough, were faithful enough to the one who has passed on.
I turned on the TV, and toggled between the offerings on Netflix, Amazon and Vudu, finally settling on a really good series—I recommend it to you-- called This is Us. It’s about a family of three siblings—one of whom is adopted---and their relationship to one another and their parents. In the episode I watched, one of the siblings is trying to explain her guilt relating to the death of her father, which had occurred many years ago. Could she have done more, did she do enough? Was she responsible for what happened to him?
That's the way it was for Jesus's friends after his crucifixion, dealing with the harsh reality that all that Jesus seemed to promise was for nothing. He was dead, there was no great kingdom to come, no king at all, just a dead man, and a poor one at that, laid in a donated grave. The world was carrying on as usual, and it was as if he never really mattered.
And there was the unspoken guilt that they dared not admit: that they were with him when the good times rolled, but abandoned him when storm clouds began to gather.
There were rumors, to be sure, that the tomb had been found empty, but rumors are rumors, and it was too wild a story to believe. So two of his friends left town to get away from the garbage men and Verizon and Dr Phil and the guilt. They chose an anonymous place called Emmaus precisely because it had no particular attractions or merit other than being away from their intolerable memories of the horror they had experienced.
And suddenly there was this guy, a stranger, walking beside them, who seemed to understand nothing and yet everything, who seemed to understand them. When he finally spoke, a fire and a joy inside that they thought had been extinguished forever was reignited, and it grew and grew until it was running high and hot inside them once again. And it took a meal with him before it dawned on them who he really was, and then he disappeared in a flash before their eyes as quickly as he appeared.
If they had the chance, they would have held onto him, kept him from leaving. But not even real nails would hold him anymore, not even on a cross.
As it was for them, so it is for us. He shows up. Maybe we see him, maybe we don’t. If we do, our hearts burn in his presence, our minds are flooded with clarity that only makes sense to ourselves, and our hearts are filled with a joy that is hard to express. If we don’t see him, we ache with a desire that seeks satisfaction in one way or another.
Some weeks after my mom’s funeral, I was feeling sad and didn’t want to see or talk to anyone, so I retreated to my bedroom in the Jesuit community. I sat down on my bed, not thinking about much. My eyes roamed around the room, and suddenly focused on something on my desk. I spotted a religious medal on my desk. I got up, and examined it, and I was confused. And then, I was blown away. It was my mother’s Miraculous Medal, with an image of Mary. I hadn’t seen it in years, and I had no idea how it appeared on my desk, so far away from where she lived. I didn't put it there, and no one else had been in my room.
It was an Emmaus moment for me, I think not unlike the experience little Ryan had in the church when he saw his daddy speaking to Jesus. And with that medal in my hand, the deep sadness and guilt that was burdening me was gently lifted off my heart. I could feel something flare up inside me, a kind of joy, and I knew that I would be OK.
It is often in Emmaus, the place to which we flee to forget and escape the sadness, it is there that he comes into our lives like a stranger. Emmaus could be a wedding procession, a mall, an internet site, a bar, a darkened bedroom, or anyplace we go to just forget it all, drown ourselves in something altogether different.
It's exactly at these times when Jesus is most likely to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Even right here, right now. Look around you. Watch and listen. When your heart starts burning, you know He’s here.
And maybe like Ryan, you won’t be able to help yourself, throwing both hands in the air and shouting with genuine joy, “Yippee!”and “Alleluia!”.
I wish that for you.