Herald of Hope
One of the most beautiful and hope-inspiring stories in Sacred Scriptures is that of the story of the road to Emmaus in St. Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 24:13-35) Two disciples make their way to a village called Emmaus on the evening of the third day after the death of Jesus on the cross. They make the journey with heavy hearts, filled with doubt, anxiety and disappointment.
They encounter a stranger on the road, who asks them what they are discussing as they go their way. The stranger is the risen Lord, though they do not recognize him. They tell him the whole story of Jesus the Nazarene and his great words and deeds, and how he was put to death. They express to him that they were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.
The stranger listens patiently, and then begins to open their hearts to a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures, explaining how what had happened to their Lord and master had to take place to fulfill the Scriptures. As evening falls, the two disciples invite him into their home, and when he breaks bread with them at table, they recognize who he is, whereupon he vanishes from their sight. They exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
The story of the road to Emmaus holds many theological and spiritual insights concerning the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Along with these insights, another important detail that it reveals to us is that the Word of God can set our hearts on fire.
When we speak about the Word of God, we do so in a couple of different senses. In the fullest sense of its meaning, the Word of God is, of course, the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.
In another sense, the Word of God refers to the Sacred Scriptures, the Good News that tells us of God, and what God wants for us, and helps us to put God’s will into practice. The Old Testament speaks of God’s promises and God’s preparation of his people for the coming of his only begotten Son. The New Testament epistles and other writings offer reflections on the life and message of Christ. The Gospels include the words and deeds of Christ himself.
Pope Francis, in a homily he delivered in 2022, emphasized two essential aspects of the Word of God. (Homily of His Holiness Pope Francis on Sunday of the Word of God, Jan. 23, 2022, at St. Peter’s Basilica.) First, the Word of God reveals God to us, and second, it leads us to other people. The Holy Father was commenting on Luke 4:16-21, in which Jesus, near the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, enters the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, which begins with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” It goes on to speak about the mission to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. After handing the scroll back to the synagogue attendant, Jesus says, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
The first aspect of the Word of God is that it reveals God to us. Jesus begins his ministry commenting on Sacred Scripture, a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. As he does so, he reveals his intention in ministry. He has come to free the poor and oppressed of this world. In doing this, he reveals the face of God as one who cares for us in our poverty and is active in our lives. God is not cold and detached, but rather a caring God, who is with us every step of the way. This reflects Jesus’ designation, “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
The Good News that Jesus proclaims in this Gospel passage is the closeness of God; God is near, and wants to care for us, his people. Jesus conveys this compassionate, caring closeness of God as he reflects on the Scripture passage. God wants to relieve our burdens and support our steps. God is not a merciless judge, but rather a Savior, who liberates and heals.
Pope Francis states that all too often we project human images on God, imagining him to be vengeful, wrath-filled and angry. Pope Francis states that reflecting on the Word of God helps us to cast off those false images of God, and to understand better what God wants for us.
He goes on to say, “The word of God nurtures and renews faith: let us put it back at the center of our prayer and spiritual life! Let us put at the center the word that reveals to us what God is like. The word that draws us close to God.”
The second aspect of the Word is that it leads us to other people. Pope Francis states, “God’s word drives us to go forth from ourselves and to encounter our brothers and sisters solely with the quiet power of God’s liberating love.”
Jesus, preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, proclaims that he has come to set us free. He has come to encounter us in our wounded-ness, to console our broken hearts and to break the chains that imprison our souls. In this proclamation, Jesus shows us the worship that is most pleasing to God — caring for our neighbor in need.
Pope Francis says, “The word of God urges us to act, to combine worship of God and care for (others).” Sacred Scripture motivates us to “go forth and encounter others, drawing near to their wounds.”
The Word has become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and wishes to become flesh in us. The Word challenges us to be active and creative when encountering others in their suffering. It calls us to be ministers of liberation and consolation as followers of Jesus.
Back to the story of the road to Emmaus — the two disciples recognized that their hearts were burning within them as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them. What did the Word reveal to them about God? It revealed that God’s love is so boundless that he sent his Son into the world to suffer and die to set us free. It revealed that God’s will to save is so great that death has no power over it.
These insights inspired the two disciples to run all the way back to Jerusalem to announce the Good News to the other disciples — news of resurrection, new life and the limitless love of God. They ran to the others to share the message of God’s mercy.
Pope Francis encourages us to put the Word of God at the center of our prayer and our spiritual life. We do this by listening intently to the Word of God proclaimed at Mass, by incorporating the reading of Scripture in our prayer, by meditating on the teachings and the actions of Christ as presented to us in the Gospels, and by allowing the Word of God to guide us in our actions. The Word will help us to know God on a more profound level, and make us instruments of God’s mercy and healing love to those in need. It will set our hearts on fire.