Every year, when I hear the Gospel passages about Mary not recognizing the resurrected Jesus at the tomb and the apostles also not recognizing Jesus when He joins them on the way to Emmaus, I imagine myself saying to them, “Really, people? How do you not recognize Him?! How can it be that you were with this man every day for all those years and you don’t know Him? How can you have completely given up everything in your life to follow after Him and you still don’t know who He is? You were with Him at Golgotha and still you don’t know Him? How can this be?”
Was it that He looked different? Perhaps. Maybe it was something more though too.
We see that both Mary and the disciples were in a state of emotional desolation. In John 20:11-18 we read that Mary, “weeping,” was so overcome by emotion at the tomb that she did not recognize the angels or Jesus for who they were. The disciples too, on the road to Emmaus, were feeling emotionally desolate. “They stopped, looking downcast” after having recounted to Jesus that they “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:13-35). Both Mary and the disciples were so besieged by sorrow, so deeply entrenched in their loss, that they could not see past it to Jesus present with them.
In his book, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV, speaks of the Ignatian practice of discerning the workings of God in our lives. His words, although addressed to the modern day reader, could just as well be applied to the Mary at the tomb and the disciples on the way to Emmaus. He writes:
“Though they feel separated from God, persons in spiritual desolation are not in fact separated from God who is ever “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” Ignatius is highlighting a fundamental characteristic of spiritual desolation; while it endures, any felt consciousness of God’s loving presence is weakened or absent, and such persons feel as if they were separated from God.” (p. 66).
Fr. Gallagher explains that God allows this kind of spiritual desolation so as to teach us. “Ignatius understands that when we faithfully resist spiritual desolation we “learn” spiritual lessons highly useful for our spiritual journey” (p. 68).
So, what is it that Mary and the disciples, who were suffering from both emotional and spiritual desolation, were supposed to learn? What is it that we can learn from their experiences? How are we to see Jesus present when we are blinded by emotion or when we just can’t sense His nearness?
It seems that there are many answers to these questions contained within the Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35):
- Remember Him. The disciples were “conversing about all the things that had occurred.” They did not forget Jesus. They kept Him in mind.
- Confess. Don’t be afraid to tell Jesus the truth. They confessed to Jesus that they really thought he was going to be the one to redeem Israel. They confessed to him their disappointment.
- Believe. Do not be like the disciples who recount the resurrection story to Jesus Himself and are reproached by him. “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
- Ask Him to stay. “But they urged him, ‘Stay with us…so he went to stay with them.’” They asked and they received what they asked for…and more.
- Break bread with Him. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” It was only when they broke bread with Jesus, that their eyes were opened. They could not see him for who He is before that moment. We cannot get by in the faith journey without the sacraments – confession, communion – they complete our faith.
- Recognize the workings of the Holy Spirit in the heart and in the Word of God. “Then they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” When their eyes were opened, they could see God at work in their lives. Spend time with the Word of God and call upon the Holy Spirit to enlighten you as you read the Word.
- Go forth together and spread the Good News. “So they set out at once…(and) recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Eucharist and community are essential to the faith journey and, once the Truth is “made known,” we cannot keep it to ourselves. We must go out and share – the Good News impels us to go forth.
It appears that there is no simple answer to my question, “Why do you not recognize Him?” Mary and the disciples had a lot of walking to do on their faith journeys before they could get to the point where they could recognize and see Jesus in truth. The same is true for us.
So, as we journey forth this Easter season, let us learn from the journeys of Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let us not end our journey in despair, but rather, ask the Holy Spirit to open our own eyes to see with the eyes of Christ and love with the heart of Christ so that we will always recognize His presence in our lives. Let us recall the wise words of St. John Paul II, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song!”
Christ is Risen by Matt Maher