“It must be groundhog day!”

3rd Sunday of Easter (A) – April 26, 2020

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35

An Unexpected Sign

One thing that we do on a regular basis is interpret reality as signs. For instance, if you’re listening to me right now, you’re interpreting the sound waves coming out of your speakers as words; and you understand these words because words represent thoughts and ideas; we can communicate because we all agree that the reality that our ears hear, which is just a bunch of sound waves, actually means something, that the sign points to something deeper, something more.

Or, for example, pretend you’re at work or at home, and a vase of flowers arrives for you. What is the first thing you think? “Who are they from??” No one thinks, “Oh, just flowers.” No, immediately your mind starts racing: “Who are they from? Why did they send them to me?” There is a card, and the card says, “With lots of love, your husband.” Everyone knows that the flowers are not just flowers. The flowers are something deeper. Reality, these flowers, point to a deeper reality, the love of your husband.

All of reality works this way! All of it! For instance, if someone came up to you and punched you in the face, and then said, “I didn’t hit you, my hand hit you!” You wouldn’t accept that! His fist, that punch, is a sign of anger, animosity, frustration—there is a deeper meaning behind that punch. Reality is not just what it appears to be.

But often we carry a false interpretation of reality. It’s like those flowers arrive and we say, “Well, I guess this means that it’s groundhog day.” No! No one thinks that. But it’s like that.

“Their eyes were prevented from recognizing him”

This is what happens with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are walking, Jesus comes along, and “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” Here is Jesus, his body, his person, the person they have probably spent years with—and they don’t recognize him. He is standing right in front of their face, but they don’t recognize him. They cannot see the reality in front of their faces. Yes, they see Jesus! But they don’t really see. It’s like looking at the roses and saying, “It’s groundhog day.” They look at Jesus—and the risen Lord is so different and unexpected that they can’t even recognize him.

Before you call the disciples idiots for not recognizing their friend, I would encourage you to hold your judgement. Often, “we usually live vast swaths of our life looking at a false image of ourselves, putting our human condition into quarantine” (Carrón, Reawakening Our Humanity, 24). We look at ourselves, baptized persons, little Christs, people who possess the grace of living the life of grace, the life of Christ pumping through our veins—we look at ourselves and we label ourselves all wrong. We have this image of ourself as “republican.” We have the image of ourself as “a hard worker.” We have a false image of “ugly” or “too skinny” or “too fat” or “unlovable” or “failure.” We think of ourselves as “not that kind of person.” And the list goes on and on. Take some time in silence, grab a piece of paper, and for fifteen minutes write down whatever comes to your mind when you say, “I am…” And then look at what you say. Really. I don’t like to sound like I’m giving homework…but I guess I am. Write, “I am…” and then whatever comes next for fifteen minutes.

Then read what you wrote. And I can guarantee that for most of us (myself included!), what we wrote down is an incredibly false image of ourselves. Sure! I’m sure a lot of it is true! On the surface there are a lot of facts. But in reality, it’s not getting to the heart of it, to the depths. Again, it’s like looking at the flowers and saying, “Oh, it must be groundhog day!” Maybe it is groundhog day, but that’s not what those flowers mean.

We have put our own humanity into “quarantine” long before this physical quarantine ever started. We have told ourself and our friends and our children many lies about who and what we are. We have tried to twist reality into what we want it to be, instead of letting reality hit us in the face and recognize that God is really present…in reality…and only in reality.

“Stay with us!”

Back to those disciples on the road! They have been walking for a while with this guy (and still haven’t recognized that it’s Jesus), but they are fascinated! There is an element of unknown that draws them, a hidden mystery. There is an element of “mystery.” If this was “just another guy,” that wouldn’t happen; but there is something unexpected and unplanned, something mysterious. And they don’t want to let it go! And so they beg him, “Stay with us!”

Sooner or later, for all of us, living with this false image of ourself and our humanity becomes unbearable. But usually it takes a crisis for us to get to that point. Maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s the death of a sibling or a child or a parent. Maybe it’s losing a job. For most of us right now, it’s this coronavirus crisis. We’re very good at living with our false images of ourselves, we like to think that “reality” isn’t real and that we can do whatever we want and believe whatever we want and live our own dream of what we want reality to be. But in moments like this, “Reality…turns out to be stubborn and [takes] the stage again, forcing its way back into the spotlight. Before our eyes, we have something greater than [our own misguided and invented] interpretations [of reality]: stubborn facts, which demand to be considered and properly interpreted” (Carrón, 27).

Reality seems hard to come by, though. Every once in a while we have an experience that really shakes us (in a good way or a bad way)—and it wakes us up, we recognize it as very, very real. We realize that we’ve been living for days, months, years with this false image of reality, a false image of ourself, of life, of everything. But then reality hits us in the face, and everything changes.

But it’s easy to start avoiding those moments. It’s easy to go back to the old way, to watching Netflix for four hours a day, to scrolling through Instagram instead of talking to your daughter who is sitting right next to you; it’s easier to catch up on Snapchat stories of people you don’t talk to, to know everything you’re missing out on, instead of talking to your best-friend about what’s really going on in each other’s lives; it’s easier to wish you were at a friend’s house, or that your party didn’t get cancelled instead of taking this opportunity you have at home to really be with the ones at home.

But in those moments when everything is real, when we finally are free to live reality as it is, when we see the great joy in reality and that all of this other stuff we were wasting our time on was just that, a waste of time—we never want those moments to end. It’s like sitting out in a field and watching a thunderstorm roll by: it’s amazing to watch that powerful storm cell, but it only lasts for a moment. And what do you say? “That was amazing! I wish we could go back to that! I wish it lasted forever!” We say the exact same thing as the disciples: “Stay with us! Stay. We don’t understand it completely, we don’t understand you completely, there is something about you that fascinates us, that we cannot manipulate. Stay with us!”

“He went in to stay with them.…their eyes were opened and they recognized him”

We often interpret reality as signs. Sure, it may “just” be a vase of flowers…but we know that it’s more. And no, it doesn’t mean that it’s groundhog day. But sometimes we are prevented from seeing reality for what it is. We live and hold on to our false images of ourselves, of our relationships with others, of our daily life. But I think this crisis has the ability to wake us up. I think that with these many days of our lives being thrown into complete disarray, we can finally cast aside all of these false images and ideas and interpretations.

But when Christ is present…reality breaks in. When Jesus was with his disciples, when he went and stayed with them, “he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.…[and] their eyes were opened.” Jesus didn’t take off a mask, God didn’t stop blinding them, no. A simple sign, the breaking of the bread—and all of a sudden the reality that was always right in front of them they could finally “see.”

Perhaps this is a time when we finally stop and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us…?” Have not our hearts been burning all of this time? And perhaps we can recognize what they have been burning for.

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