There they are, these two disciples, as exhausted as they are discouraged as they trudge the seven miles from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. We don’t know why they have forsaken the company of their fellow disciples, only that they are now walking home. Perhaps it’s all they could think to do.
They knew Jesus, the one who they had followed, had counted on, was executed by the state. They know that some people came back, claiming that they the tomb was empty and there was an angel there. But they didn’t know for sure what had happened. All they really knew was that their time following Jesus from town to town, listening to his teachings had come to an end.
And then Jesus meets them on the way. He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them at home. He doesn’t expect them make some holy pilgrimage or undertake some pious feat. Rather, he meets them where they are: on the road, amid their journey, right smack in the middle of all the pain, frustration, and despondency that threatens to overwhelm them. Even though they don’t recognize him.
It’s hard to pay attention in the middle of crushed hopes, after all.
Jesus meets them and begins to talk to them and teach to them and gradually they perk up. Their “hearts catch fire” at his teachings and they come out of the dark place they had been.
But the thing that catches my eye in this passage is that little imperfect tense verb: “we had hoped.” Families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped … ,” they say, and then they go home alone. People use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away. The moment that catches me in this passage is that moment of deep disappointment, when only a painfully imperfect verb tense will express what needs to be said.
There are few things more tragic than a dead future. Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.
The disciples had been hoping that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but the events of the past days had brought an end to that habit of hoping. The Messiah was supposed to clear out the Romans, was supposed to save their entire people from oppression and opposition. Jesus was supposed to save them all, not die a traitor’s death at the hands of the people he should have overthrown.
Even if that nonsense about his coming back was true, the future these disciples had hoped for, would never come true now.
“But we had hoped …” I love those heartbreaking words not because I enjoy wallowing in dark or sentimental emotions, but because they ring true to me. They are not the only truth, of course; there is much in this life that is beautiful, daring, confident, inspiring, and more, all of which deserves our gratitude. But there is also disappointment, heartbreak, and failure.
We have a tendency to want to gloss over the disappointments, the heartbreaks, the failures. We want to skip to the end. That’s true with the church when we celebrate Palm Sunday and follow it with Easter while not paying attention to anything in between. But Easter only matters because we have Good Friday. Because Jesus really dies and that breaks hearts and destroys hopes and leaves people lost. Just because we know the end of the story, doesn’t mean that the people living through it did.
And it’s not just with the church. We want to do it with the rest of our lives, don’t we?’
A friend shares the news of a death of his sister, and we sympathize for a moment before changing the topic. Or a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting a promotion, and we remind her that at least she has a job. Or we see an acquaintance we know has just gone through a dreadful loss, and we avoid him or her altogether because we just don’t know what to say. We don’t mean to be callous or insensitive, we are just at such a loss with loss. We feel inadequate to the task of confronting the darkness of our lives and this world and so we flee to the light because it’s easier to deal with.
Not that there are right things to say all the time. Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge the loss and sit with other person in their pain. Sometimes we are called to walk along the road with them, and listen to the hopes that were dashed. Sometime after that loss is acknowledged, then we can start to point out the new thing that can come from it. Not right away though. First, people need time to know that the dark they are in is acknowledged, shared, accepted. And the time they need is different for everyone.
People need to be invited and allowed to grieve a future that will never be in order that they may possibly hear and receive the future God has created and prepared for them. Even if something new is coming, even if something better will come out of it, first you have to face the “We had hoped” moments.
The scene, to be sure, ends with joy and excitement. It ends with them thrilled to discover that death and resurrection are deeply rooted in both Jewish Scripture and Jewish tradition, so that Jesus’ crucifixion actually fits into a pattern that can arguably be seen throughout God’s dealings with the Jewish people. It ends with them recognizing that Jesus had been with them the entire time, walking with them as they grieved and showing them how even in the darkest places in their lives, God was at work.
The story of Easter, the story of the resurrection, is a story for those who “had hoped.” It’s a story for the disappointed and the broken. The story of Easter is not just a story for the people who have it all together. To the faithful women at the tomb, to the skeptics demanding proof, to the disappointed who are trudging home, Jesus shows up. That is the joy of the Easter message, it is for us all, no matter where we are at in our journey.
When Jesus spoke to the disciples on the road, the words that were being given weren’t entirely making sense to them, not until later. But because they had someone with them who was listening to their pain and engaging with them in their grief, they invited him in for the night. Not because they understood so much as because they were still curious or perhaps grateful for a new understanding of that life on which their hope was based. They went beyond their grief and reached out to another.
It’s okay to grieve over missed hopes. It’s okay to take the time to mourn, Jesus will walk with you as you do. And if you know someone who is grieving, take the time to walk with them, to listen to them, even if they can’t give much back yet.
As Christians, we are the people of the Resurrection. That means we all go through Good Friday. We all go through our own Holy Saturday when what we had hoped so hard for is buried in the tomb. Just like Jesus did, we are called to walk with one another in the dark times, listening to the stories and offering words of comfort when they will be heard.
And gradually we find ways to turn from “We had hoped” into “We hope” again.