In the movie The Way, Martin Sheen plays the character Tom, an ophthalmologist whose life is upended when his son dies. A snowstorm struck in the Pyrenees while the son was walking the first leg of the Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St. James). When Tom travels to France to retrieve his son’s ashes, he impulsively decides to make the pilgrimage of the Camino himself. It’s an ironic choice since, as we find out, Tom had been opposed to his son leaving grad school to travel and experience the world. Now it’s Tom who leaves his medical practice behind to walk the Way of St. James.
Tom begins the journey as the quintessential curmudgeon who unsuccessfully tries to distance himself from three travelers who become attached to him – Yoost (a Dutchman walking the Way to lose weight), Sarah (a Canadian who is trying to quit smoking), and Jack (an Irishman struggling with writer’s block). As they walk the 500 mile journey, the travelers begin to share their deeper reasons for making the pilgrimage, the deeper wounds with which they struggle. Tom’s eyes are opened to the gift of community, friendship, healing, and new life as he walks the Way with these people who were once strangers. This trip is a hinge moment in Tom’s life; his world will never be the same.
Hinge moments are times when the normal fabric of our lives is crumpled and creased; our world is disrupted. The classic hinge moments in life include births, marriages, and deaths. Of course, many other events can lead to hinge moments as well. The image of a hinge illustrates what happens to our lives and relationships during significant events or changes. When we experience disruption in our lives, fixed patterns and attitudes and dynamics loosen or open up; transformation becomes possible. The question is: when we get through the disorientation and the hinge begins to close, will our life return to its previous ways? Or will our story begin from an entirely new place? Will we see the world through new eyes?
Our gospel reading is the story of a hinge moment in the life of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. A stranger joins them, and the two travelers begin to share the news that he seems not to have heard. They’ve experienced a huge loss – the death of the one on whom they had hung all their hopes, this great prophet mighty in deed and word, Jesus of Nazareth. They had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.
I suspect a sense of betrayal was mingled with their disappointment. Brushing aside the people’s and the Roman government’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, the two disciples lay the blame or betrayal at the feet of their chief priests and leaders. Perhaps they feel let-down by Jesus as well. In the ninth chapter of Luke, Jesus told the disciples: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be betrayed by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Now it’s nearing the end of the third day, and to their knowledge no one has seen Jesus. Are they destined to be disappointed even further?
As they continue to talk, though, we see that the disorientation of the previous three days may be enough to make them question the dominant narratives about the way the world works. When some women went to the tomb earlier that day, they saw angels who proclaimed to them that Jesus was alive. Some of the men returned to the tomb but didn’t find Jesus. Could it be that he had indeed been resurrected? The door was cracked to the possibility that what they assumed about death might be wrong. Perhaps the paradigm by which they had lived their life was beginning to shift.
The stranger begins to explain the scriptures to them, making the case that it was necessary that the Messiah suffer before entering into glory. As the teacher acts as if he is going to continue walking, the disciples insist that he come in and eat with them. At the table, he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives them the bread – the guest becoming the host in a four-fold action that the disciples recognized immediately. They have seen this before – at the feeding of the five thousand and at the last supper. Their eyes are opened, and they recognize Jesus.
Their path physically changed at that moment; they turned around and went back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. But, even more, their whole world was transformed – from one of desertion to one of faithfulness, from one of isolation to one of community, from one of despair to one of hope, from one of limited outcomes to one of incredible possibilities, from one of restrictions to one of freedom and grace, from one of death to one of life. The kingdom of heaven was present with them.
Every now and then our lives are disrupted in such a way there will inevitably be a “before” and an “after.” A job is lost, a child is born, a parent dies, we move to a new place, a pandemic strikes. Some of these are things of our own choosing, and some are not. Some are exciting, some are painful, and some are both. These transitions often invite us to change the narrative that rules our behavior, guides our actions, and underlies our fear.
But these major hinge moments are not the only opportunities we have for transformation. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus found, anytime we encounter the risen Christ the old narratives of our world are disrupted. When do we encounter the resurrected Christ? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” When the righteous ask when they did this, the reply is: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The risen Christ is in each person; it’s the image of God dwelling deep within us.
Too often we fail to recognize the resurrected Christ in the people we meet. But when we do, our lives are upended by a story that is deeper, truer, more compassionate, more hopeful, less controlling, more grace-filled than any other narrative we’ve ever encountered. That’s how we know that we have truly encountered Christ – when it is this narrative that guides how we live, that determines our actions and our attitudes.
The grace of it all is that we have chance after chance to live this way, for the risen Christ is all around us. As Cleopas and the other disciple found, Jesus is present in those who walk the road of life with us. If we slow down and pay attention to the burning in our hearts, we will find that each person – each moment – beckons us to a new narrative, to new life. If we are just present enough and willing enough to have our eyes opened.