Not just because it was the Gospel at my first Mass, but I have always loved the story of the two depressed disciples heading out of town after the tragic death of Jesus toward the town of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem.
You can almost feel their despair as they walk and talk, “looking downcast.” As they confessed to Jesus, without recognizing who he was, “We were hoping…” When the story ends, it says “their eyes were opened” and “their hearts were burning within them.”
What is the message of Easter? In the words of the great “theologian,” Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over!”
Just when they were hitting bottom, these two depressed disciples, dragging themselves away from Jerusalem and toward Emmaus, were astounded by some women in their group who reported that the tomb was empty and some angels had told them that he was alive. Buoyed by this astounding news, their depression turned to joy, they made a u-turn and headed back to the scene of the crime.
As I mentioned earlier, this was the Gospel text for my first Mass back in 1970. I picked an old Quaker hymn to go with it, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” which sings about “hearing the music above the tumult and the strife.”
In 1970, the Church was changing fast and many priests were leaving the priesthood just as I was coming in. I was aware enough that I was no stronger than anyone else and the temptation to give up would be a constant in my life as a priest. Even at that, I could never have imagined the first days of the sexual abuse scandal.
After 42 years of ordained ministry, there have been many times when I was tempted to give up. I have ministered to even more who have come to me on the verge of giving up, seeking some kind of encouragement. This column is dedicated to them, and writing it has helped me in the process. As someone said, we teach what we need to learn. But, what I have learned by not giving up is even more profound. It has always been darkest right before dawn. Breakdown has always occurred right before a great breakthrough.
“Anyone can give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.” (Anonymous) “It’s often the last key on the ring which opens the door.” (Anonymous)
Gospel singers, Bill and Gloria Gaither, wrote these words: “If you’ve knelt beside the rubble of an aching, broken heart, when the things you gave your life for fell apart, you’re not the first to be acquainted with sorrow, grief or pain, but the Master promised sunshine after rain. Hold on my child, joy comes in the morning, the darkest hour means dawn is just in sight.”
The message of Easter? Never give up!