Our reflection for Easter is written by the Director of AJAN, Fr Paterne Mombe SJ.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” – Lk 24:5-6
He is alive and walks with us…
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels put this question to the women who went to the tomb in the early morning to embalm the body of Christ. It is a question that could be put to us too, as we search for meaning in the Easter mystery, or rather in realities like suffering, death and life, especially in an era marked by HIV/AIDS.
As I thought about my contribution for AJAN’s Lenten and Easter series, I pondered the angels’ words to the women and was caught between three different elements, which could all serve as starting points for my reflection: The story of a person living with HIV? An Easter message proper? Or a reference to our new pope? In the end, Pope Francis won.
At this time when the whole world, myself included, is seeking to discover more about the man of God chosen by the cardinals to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, a particular testimony about him caught my attention: for the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday in 2001, the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, went to a hospice of AIDS patients and washed the feet of 12 of them. In 2001, the stigma targeting people with HIV was very strong everywhere, and antiretroviral treatment was not yet widely available.
This compassionate and no less prophetic act has a highly symbolic and telling significance for the mystery of Easter and what it means for our lives. We can only imagine the joy of the hospice patients, who had certainly known stigma, when they saw the cardinal approach them in service and charity – it must have been a healing and transforming experience. The presence of this man of the Church at their side spoke volumes about a God who looks to the misery of humanity with compassion and who shares our suffering. Through his actions, the then cardinal restored dignity, hope and life in the hospice patients. Does this shed any light on Easter and its meaning for us?
Perhaps one of the readings of the Liturgy of the feast of Easter can tell us more. One that may be interesting to consider here is that of the apparition of the risen Lord to the two disciples at Emmaüs (Lk 24:13-35). This passage tells how the risen Christ joined two of his disciples and walked with them without being recognised. It took the breaking of the bread for them to awaken to his presence by their side.
Commentators on this reading from Luke often dwell either on the shift in the disciples’ understanding, from expecting a powerful national messiah to welcoming a messiah who has passed through suffering to attain glory, or on the reference to the scriptures and the breaking of bread by the risen Jesus, who thus reveals himself to his disciples, to underline the importance of the Eucharist as the presence of the Risen One in the Church.
Three action verbs, borrowed by Pope Francis in his first homily, can help us to learn more from this passage: walking, edifying and confessing.
Walking or walking with: The risen Jesus catches up with the disciples and walks with them on the road to Emmaüs. He listens to them attentively as they express their discouragement, desolation, sadness, confusion, despair and distress… even anger. A silent but present God, who walks with us amid our troubles.
Edifying: After listening to them, the risen Christ edifies the two disciples. He helps them to pull themselves together, enlightening them by drawing on the Word of God. His actions restore and enhance their faith and hope. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32), they say later on.
Confessing or testifying: The disciples’ experience with the risen Christ reaches its peak in the highly meaningful gesture of the breaking of the bread, of their bread generously offered when he joins them at table to share their evening meal. This act, which reveals the presence of the Risen One, makes sense of the words the angels spoke to the women before the empty tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Faith and hope are reborn: a new life emerges, where one becomes a man or a woman for others. It is impossible to keep quiet. The disciples, transformed by their experience of nearness to the risen Christ, run to their companions to testify to him and to restore their hope and life too.
Can we keep quiet when faced with the attitude of Christ on the road to Emmaüs, which is a great model for the pastoral accompaniment of our brothers and sisters who are afflicted by HIV? Working with people who have HIV reveals that they meet their moment of diagnosis with sadness, depression, despair and sometimes revolt against God who has, it seems, abandoned them.
We must walk with people, listen as they articulate their suffering and disappointment in a God they don’t understand… no longer understand. Then, in simplicity and patience, we must help them to rediscover the image of God of love and mercy, who cannot condemn or abandon, and who shares their suffering. Ours should be an active presence that restores the courage to move on.
The passage of the disciples of Emmaüs enlightens and teaches us that the risen Christ is not a thing of the past, but of the present, of each and every day. The Easter events we celebrate renew our faith in this God who is near, who comes to us and walks with us on our roads to Emmaüs, whatever they may bring of suffering, difficulties and despair, to transform and to heal us.
Turning to AJAN, we may say that Jesus reveals his presence and transforms us through those who wash and kiss our feet, through all manner of services aimed at promoting life to the full: it could be a act by a stranger, one who, moved by our condition, makes a generous gesture that allows us to develop our activities to earn a living, to look after ourselves, and to give a future to our children.
May the celebration of Easter renew in us the life of Christ and make of us sacraments, concrete and visible signs of his grace, a transforming presence that brings about life to the full. And may the risen Christ give us the grace to recognise his presence in the different moments of our personal history and enable us to live the experience of spring in our lives.
A happy Easter to you all!
To read this article in French, please go here.