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When Faith Comes Up Short

I was a 19-year-old college freshman facing a difficult, emotional time. My father was in an irreversible coma, and there was little doubt about the outcome. My grandmother arrived to be with him, and I was with her as she stood at his bedside. She held his hand – broken-hearted and silent – a stoic Irish mother refusing to give in to her tears. After a long time, she uttered what could have been a prayer: “If I could trade places with him, I’d do it in a second.” That, of course, was not to be. He died within days.

When tragedy overpowers us, we find ourselves lost. In the face of suffering and death, our vulnerability and weakness are exposed. There are no answers. The faith we rely on fails to protect us, and it feels as though God has abandoned us.

My grandmother and I weren’t alone in facing heartbreak. Luke’s Gospel recounts two such tragic events. In one, Martha and Mary sent a message to Jesus that their brother was ill. In spite of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, he waited two days before leaving for Bethany. By the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for three days and was already entombed. Martha and Mary were overcome with grief.

Luke’s second account of being overwhelmed by tragedy is an Easter reading – the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus’ crucifixion has left them lost and disillusioned. Their hope that he was the Messiah who would redeem Israel had been shattered. They were broken-hearted and confused, struggling to make sense of the events that were unfolding.

Life’s tragedies can take us to the place where our faith reaches a breaking point. My grandmother and I experienced it at my father’s bedside. Martha and Mary experienced it when Lazarus died. The disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced it when Jesus was crucified. Our faith was too small to stand up to the mystery of suffering and death. It couldn’t handle the tragic events we were experiencing. We were left grief-stricken, disillusioned, and lost – struggling to find our way.

The Emmaus story offers wisdom to guide us when our faith reaches the breaking point. It is a story of passage and transformation. There are times when it needs to become our story, our journey, and our passage through suffering and death to the new life of resurrection.

As the disciples struggled to come to grips with what had happened, a mysterious stranger joined them on the road. They were surprised that he seemed completely unaware of the tragic events that had taken place in Jerusalem. He questioned them about what had happened and listened to their description of the events. Then, he chided them:

Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Luke 24: 25-26)

The disciples had failed to grasp the meaning of the events that were unfolding. Their faith was unable to stand up to the mystery of suffering and death. Their notion of the Messiah was simplistic and naïve – too small to grasp that suffering and death are the passageway to the new life of resurrection. At my father’s bedside, my grandmother and I knew something about how they felt. Perhaps you know something about it too.

The stranger led the disciples on a soul-searching journey. He started with Moses and took them through the prophets – interpreting the scriptures about the Messiah. In doing so, he stretched their minds and opened their hearts. The key to understanding the events unfolding before them had been there all along. Their narrow view of what it meant to be the Messiah kept them from seeing it.

There are times when we may find ourselves on the road to Emmaus. When we confront a mystery that’s bigger than we are, our faith may be found wanting. God has not abandoned us, but our vision is too limited, and our faith is too small.

In the years since my father’s death, I’ve come to trust that every crisis of faith is an opportunity in disguise. It invites us to go deeper, to embrace mystery in a more profound way. Whenever our faith comes up short, it urges us to leave our too-small view of God behind and open ourselves more completely to the hidden and mysterious ways of God.

As the disciples came to Emmaus, they urged the stranger to stay with them. The three gathered to share a meal – a defining experience of Jesus’ ministry. At shared meals, he welcomed outcasts and sinners, extended forgiveness and reconciliation to those who were broken, and sealed the new covenant in his blood. During the shared meal at Emmaus, the disciples’ eyes were opened. In the breaking of the bread, they recognized the mysterious stranger as the Risen Christ.

Easter urges us to make the Emmaus story our story. It invites us deeper into God’s word – opening our eyes to the mysterious ways that God is present in the events unfolding before us. As the Emmaus story becomes our story, the breaking of the bread opens our hearts to see the Risen Christ in every stranger – particularly the poor and those most vulnerable. As the Emmaus story becomes our story, it opens us to embrace the Easter transformation – that mysterious passage through suffering and death to the new life of resurrection. As the Emmaus story becomes our story, our soul-searching gives birth to insight, our faith is revitalized, our hearts burn within us, and we are transformed by the new life of Easter.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you ponder ways that the Emmaus story is your story.

  • Have you ever been disillusioned or had your faith reach a breaking point? If so, what was the experience like for you?
  • In what ways do you identify with the grief of Martha and Mary? With the disillusionment of the disciples on the road to Emmaus?
  • What soul-searching experiences have you had – of slowly coming to see events in a deeper way?
  • Have you ever experienced your faith coming up short? Did you ever come to discover that it was an opportunity in disguise? What was that like for you?
  • In what way is the Emmaus story your story? What is it asking of you?