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“We had hoped….”
Those words feel familiar. We are living inside the reality of those words right now. We are walking a road that is littered with the broken plans we’d made. Ask anyone in your life what they had hoped would be happening in their lives right now, and you will almost certainly hear a sad story. You have your own sad stories, too.
The two friends walking home to Emmaus from Jerusalem on the first Easter morning were talking about their own shared story of sorrow and suffering. They had been in Jerusalem, perhaps for Passover, when Jesus was handed over, condemned to death, and crucified. Now they’re walking home, grieving and confused. The reality they had planned for has been torn apart.
“We had hoped he was the one.” Is there anything sadder than hope in the past tense?
Well, I can think of one thing. The inability to find hope in the present.
It’s one thing to mourn the loss of things we had hoped for. But now many of us find ourselves in the strange position of not knowing what to hope for at this point. How do you make plans? How do you make decisions? How do you let yourself begin to hope for something, when the future seems like nothing but a cloud?
At this point, we know there’s no going back to the way things were, but what does it mean to go forward?
Surely the two friends walking towards Emmaus felt the same. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah who would change the world. They had hoped he would usher in the new kingdom he had promised. Instead, he had been betrayed, arrested, tortured, publicly executed, and mocked while he died. Their hope died with him.
Now, his body is missing and some grief-stricken women have been going around claiming that some angels told them he is alive, adding to their trauma with their “fake news.”
The two friends can’t undo the past, and the present is pretty horrifying, too. And what does the future look like for the followers of a failed leader?
As the two friends are talking, a stranger walks up and joins them. And given how easy it is for people in pain to shut themselves off to newness – new people, new ideas, new experiences – isn’t it beautiful that they are open to conversation with this man? And isn’t it something that the first thing Jesus does after being raised from the grave is to go on a walk? We heard it in the story of the women at the tomb two weeks ago, on Easter morning. They were running down the path from the tomb and he walked up to them and said, “Good morning.” Now it is evening, and here he is again, out on a walk. This is how Jesus appears to his friends after the resurrection – not in a grand, triumphant fashion, but quietly slipping up alongside them. On the road with them. On the move.
As they walk, he asks them what they’re talking about, they ask, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened here?” Which is funny and ironic, because the truth is, he’s the only one who does know what has really happened.
The friends tell this whole sad story, and they look right at Jesus, but they still don’t see him. Because that’s what happens sometimes when your hope is dead and your heart is broken. You can look right at the truth and not even recognize it.
Jesus listens to their pain and disappointment. Now it’s his turn to do the talking, and he retells the story, but with a bigger frame. He goes back to the real beginning of the story, back to Moses and the prophets, and he interprets the Scriptures to them. The story he tells them is bigger than they’d understood, and better, and more beautiful. He doesn’t end with death, but it contains it.
He does this as he walks alongside them. He doesn’t rush the point. And he doesn’t rush them to get “perspective” on the loss they feel. He just walks with them, and tells them a story big enough to hold all their pain, all their disappointment, all their broken hopes.
When they finally finish the seven-mile trek to their hometown, Jesus keeps walking; he’s not one to force himself on people. But the two travelers urge him to stay, and he does. They sit at a table together, and Jesus takes bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them. And all of a sudden, they see. They recognize him. And then he is gone.
The whole time they thought he was absent, he was actually right there with them, present. And the moment they realize he’s present, he vanishes, he becomes absent.
We know a lot these days about presence and absence. We might be tempted to say we actually mostly know absence, but that isn’t quite true, is it? Our absence from people we love has actually drawn their presence into a new kind of sharpness, hasn’t it? Our absence from the spaces and routines that ordinarily define our lives has pushed us into the sometimes uncomfortable and somewhat constant presence of the people we live with. It pushes us into a new kind of presence with ourselves. Our absence from our church building has opened the door for the presence of people who need shelter. And the absence of a known future forces us to reckon with the presence of the present moment in new ways.
It goes further than all those trade-offs, though. Our absence from each other, and from other people we love, has been a physical absence. But a physical absence isn’t a total absence. We’ve heard this distinction made when people have challenged the language of “social distancing,” calling for the use of the phrase “physical distancing” instead – acknowledging that our physical separation from each others doesn’t have to be a relational separation. We are becoming present to each other in old ways – letters, phone calls – and new ones – like this. We use the word “virtual” for this kind of gathering, which implies it is almost real, but not quite. But is that true?
What if it isn’t a binary? What if both absence and presence can be true at the same time? What if it can be true that we miss the physical, in-person presence of other people and that we have also become more present to each other than ever. Or that we could.
For people who claim a faith that has incarnation at the core, it is tough to reckon with. The incarnation is our proclamation that, in Jesus, God took on human flesh and lived among us. Fully human, fully divine. Physical, not just spirit. Embodied.
And yet. From the very beginning, Jesus followers have had to grapple with absence – it all started with an empty tomb and a missing body. Even after the risen Christ appears to them, he doesn’t stay physically present with them forever. We see it in the story of Emmaus, how he disappears the moment they realize he’s present. And yet this time, his disappearance isn’t a cause for grief but of joy. They run the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This tension, between presence and absence, has always been a part of the fabric of our faith. Digital theologian Katherine Schmidt* argues that the mystery of the incarnation draws us into the tension between presence and absence, and that this tension is a creative place, but we are always collapsing the space by trying to resolve the contradiction. It’s hard to live in the tension between presence and absence, between the journey and the destination, between now and not yet.
But it’s in that tension, in that creative space, where we actually encounter the divine. It’s where we find each other most authentically, too – when we give ourselves to the awkward challenge of being present in the midst of absence, of listening to pain without rushing to fix it, of honoring another person’s experience without imposing our own. It is in that tension, that creative space, that we will also find ourselves most authentically – in the willingness to be present to our own disappointments and longings. It’s the space where we hear the truth of “I had hoped…”, and where we can also hear – and even tell – a bigger story, without rushing it or pushing it. it’s the space where we discover we are not alone. We are never alone.
We are on a difficult road right now, walking for an unknown time towards an uncertain future. There are so many broken hopes behind us and all around us, and it’s hard for us to know what to hope for even now.
But the risen Christ walks unseen alongside us. We would have preferred a definitive appearance, a physical presence. But in his physical absence, and in this strange time of physical absence from each other, we have an invitation to become present to each other – and to ourselves, and to God – in new ways. Our willingness to hear each other’s hurts, to hold nonjudgmental space for each other’s experiences, to honor our new realities, to extend radical hospitality and unconditional love to the people we live with (including ourselves), to accompany each other – even “virtually” – on this road – this is where hope is born again because it’s where Christ will keep showing up. Which is to say – it’s where our new future begins.
*Katherine G. Schmidt.”Virtual Communion: Theology of the Internet and the Catholic Imagination.” Dissertation. 2016.