A Reflection for the 3rd Sunday of Easter by Fr Phil Andrews.
20 January 2006 proved to be a very sad day for all lovers of fine satire, for it marked the final appearance of the famous Telegraph column written by Michael Bernhard Nathan Wharton.
Who? … you might be asking? Well, if I tell you his pseudonym was Peter Simple, then a few of you might now know to whom I’m referring. Almost from the same mould as P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, this mischievous writer was far from being a politically mainstream character himself. Once described as being “practically unclassifiable – a feudalist and a rabid reactionary, … [who] hated ‘Progress’, loathed communism and socialism with a passion, and wasn’t keen on capitalism or money-grubbing in general”; he was pretty complex! Nonetheless, even those with whom he’d locked horns during his career hailed him, upon news of his death three days after his final submission, as being the funniest newspaper columnist of all time. Citing one of his own characters, the obituary in The Guardian lamented: “Even Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the unregenerate Hampstead Marxist, will not be able to suppress some sense of loss as she pours a celebratory glass of sherry”.
Indeed, it will be for his vast list of such satirical characters, based on the personages of his day, that he’ll be most remembered. Just a few others which come to mind (and with thanks to the editors of Wiki):
Alderman Jabez Foodbotham — “the 25-stone, iron-watch-chained, crag-visaged, grim-booted” Lord Mayor of Bradford and “perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee.” Officially, he’d died in 1928, but local legend stated that, like Charlemagne, he “lies asleep in a mountain cave near “Northowram”, awaiting the summons “to save his city in its hour of supreme danger”.
Julian Birdbath — the perennially unsuccessful writer and “last citizen of the Republic of Letters”. He’d performed an astounding feat of literary detective-work by discovering a fourth Brontë sister, Doreen Brontë.
Sir Jim Gastropodi — born in Poggibonsi, he’d gone on to become the celebrated conductor of the Stretchford Municipal Symphony Orchestra. An obsessive admirer of Mahler, he’d been delighted to come across the same’s newly discovered symphonies: “The Interminable”, “The Insufferable” and “The Unendurable”. Also, from Poggibonsi, were Giovanni Botulismo, proprietor of the popular Salmonella restaurant; and Giuseppe Fittopaldi, composer of the operas ‘Le sorelle Brontë’ (The Brontë Sisters), ‘Bramwell’ (sic), ‘La Fanciulla del Riding Occidentale’ (The Young Lass of The West Riding of Yorkshire), and ‘Alderman Foodbotham di Bradford’.
J. Bonington Jagworth — had been the leader of the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front, and defender of “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Suspicious of his Marxist chief-of-staff Royston Cylinder, Jagworth had become a good friend to The Rev. John Goodwheel (the “Apostle of the Motorways”, who, as “the motorists’ padre”, drove around in a mobile Romanesque cathedral).
Part of the fun was working out upon whom the characters were based. Sir Jim Gastropodi was almost certainly the great Sir John Barbirolli, sometime conductor of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra; whilst J. Bonington Jagworth was a prophetic satire, when one considers Jeremy Clarkson, the former host of Top Gear.
What, you might be wondering, does Peter Simple’s somewhat satirical, yet cynical approach to life have to do with this Third Sunday of Easter, and its Gospel, the “Road to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35, see below)? Well, it’s all in the journey, and being able to recognise our companion along the way.
Simple’s work also reminds me of John Bunyan’s epic opus, The Pilgrim’s Progress, not least in that work’s long list of allegorical characters. Here, the everyman character, called “Christian”, encounters many different personalities as he journeys from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City”. It has to be said that Bunyan, being a Puritan divine, almost certainly viewed Catholics with suspicion for having just a bit too much fun in their faith, and so was not given to the same literary levity as Simple. However, even fun-loving Catholics can, in part, appreciate the journey taken by Bunyan’s protagonist. The place where the Christian pilgrim’s doubts, fears, and temptations threaten to overwhelm him is described by Bunyan as the mire-like bog of the “Slough of Despond”; so immediately, one feels discouraged from visiting a town on the A4, also much maligned by the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman.
Peter Simple’s start had not been an easy one; with doubt a companion, and against many odds, he struggled – valiantly – to make something of his life. Coming from a modest home in Bradford where life had not always been easy, he went on to become a great writer, through both wit and sheer effort. However, in that life journey he appears to have seen the world in a cynical light. This, of course, enabled him to write hilarious satire; but one must always be wary that such cynicism doesn’t pervade other spheres of life, too. What might he have missed en-route, whilst busying himself with just one “agenda”? As St Paul wittily reminds all of us: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1.).
And so, the disciples in today’s Gospel are on a journey. In one sense, that short journey to Emmaus was an allegorical, and somewhat satirical, microcosm of their entire lives. In the time leading up to that walk, they had stood by the Lord Jesus – valiantly. They had been loyal disciples of the Lord Jesus, and in that capacity, had journeyed alongside him up to Jerusalem (to what they’d hoped would become for them the “Celestial City”), expecting Jesus to reveal himself as the great and powerful Messiah, who would wreak destruction upon their Imperial persecutors. But even then, whilst standing beside the Lord Jesus during his teaching ministry, they had failed to recognise his mission, even when he had spelt it out to them. They had failed to recognise the Lord, and he had been standing right before them!
It was now shortly after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Despite the predictions Jesus had given concerning his crucifixion and death, these disciples could not believe that the Lord has in fact risen. Seemingly, they’d written-off the testimony of the women who had found the empty tomb, and also the corroboration of the Apostles: that Jesus has risen from the dead, as he had promised. As they trudged away from the scene of this seemingly humiliating disaster, their journey was one of despair and doubt. As far as they were concerned, the story was over!
And so, they were cynical, and they were downcast; they had journeyed away from Jerusalem (from what, instead, had become for them the “City of Destruction”) along that first century Judean A4, towards Emmaus, their “Slough of Despond”.
In times of “normality”, we can become like these disciples. We can impose our own pre-determined plan on the Lord Jesus and expect him to fit in with our own expectations. We can satirise the truth to the extent that we fail to recognise it for what it is. Many of us reading this will have been Baptized, we’ll have made our first Holy Communion, and have been Confirmed; but we may also have failed to realize that these were more than just ends in and of themselves. Rather, they were precious, grace-filled milestones on a journey: our journey in the company of Christ, back to our Heavenly and Almighty Father.
At Baptism, we were given far more than a set of “Apostle Spoons”, we were given the precious virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity in order to become apostles. As with those Apostle spoons hiding away in the sideboard, we can choose to use the supernatural virtues, or we can misplace them in the dusty corners of our lives and fail to benefit from them. These two disciples, Cleopas, and maybe it had been his wife or best friend, had been given so much by the Lord; they’d been given his friendship and closeness, his love and trust; but they’d squandered it, and kept their eyes (and ears) firmly shut to the Lord’s gracious care and instruction. In so doing, they’d satirised their own lives, and looked upon others with what appears to have be an air of foolish cynicism.
Well, we are certainly not living in times of “normality” now. Are we going to try and maintain a business-as-usual approach, with an injection of cynical British stoicism to get us through the most tricky moments; or, are we going to open and our eyes, and unstop our ears to see and hear the Lord who has never left our side? Have we, all of these years past, received the Lord in Holy Communion, but failed to understand and recognise him?
Happily, there are many Christian disciples who have recognised the Lord in the breaking of bread, whose hearts have been burning with the Lord since their own Emmaus moment. We see them living the Eucharist in their lives, most notably in their service to the Church and the community, and in their apostleship of prayer at this difficult time. Thank God, many reading this reflection will be like those first women at the tomb, like Peter and John, sharing their enthusiasm, and yearning to be witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus by their faithfulness to his teaching, and the gospel values that mark their lives.
When those disciples en-route to Emmaus re-discovered their faith, that feeling of their hearts burning was the loving power of God. When we re-discover that wonderful Baptismal virtue of Faith, then the Holy Spirit perfects our use of it with the gift of knowledge and understanding of God. We can become part of God’s plan, rather than being just onlookers smirking from the side-lines. And when we grasp this, then like those two disciples, we can return to Jerusalem and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is truly risen. This is living the charismatic grace of our Confirmation: by carrying within ourselves our Eucharistic Lord; the One who has given himself so intimately, and yet so purposefully, that we must carry him out, to share with the world, because we are his disciples!
We’re all on a journey. We’re not called to go around in circles; nor, are we called to trip our way into the “Slough of Despond”. Rather, “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!” (St Augustine). The church doors may still be closed due to fear of the virus, but the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ is always open, and despite all of the restrictions, his divine and loving mercy needs to be fearlessly shared by us; and if necessary, let’s start by sharing it with ourselves! So, if we find ourselves to be in “Slough”; and we’re longing for the day when again we can receive the Lord in Holy Communion; let’s meditate upon the fact that for all of these days past, that same Lord has been walking by our side. He has never left us, and he longs to make himself known to us, again, in the breaking of the bread. For, by virtue of our Baptism, the Holy Spirit came to dwell within each one of us: and so God is closer to each one of us than we are to ourselves (interior intimo meo et superior summo meo – “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”: St Augustine, Confessions III, 6, 11.).
Wherever we find ourselves on the journey, let’s comprehend that we’re not alone. Let’s allow the Lord to open to us the Scriptures by our making a commitment to reading the Sacred Scriptures more diligently, especially the daily readings from Mass. Let’s feel our hearts burning as we unite ourselves ever-more closely in Spiritual Communion with our Eucharistic Lord, knowing that Holy Mass is still celebrated frequently throughout the world; and let’s do all we can to live our discipleship by sharing the Good News that Christ is risen, by our commitment in prayer, and in the practise of apostolic charity with all whom we may encounter in need. This is living our Communion: with the Lord, and with one another (Cf. Rom. 12:5.).
We will encounter others on the journey, and they might be staggering along in despair. But stop to think, as the Lord’s disciples, who have recognised the Lord in the breaking of bread; we might be the ones whom the Lord then uses to make that life-changing encounter a reality for them: so that the people that walked in darkness will see a great light (Cf. Isaiah 9:2.), and it will be the light of Christ shining through our own discipleship (Cf. Rom. 12:11b.).
And lastly, let’s not give up on our faith-enthused sense of humour! Our Easter Faith is a faith of joy, and down the centuries, that joy has survived intact in the midst of other difficult times. Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting in B-flat Major of Psalm 99(100), Jubilate Deo, omnis terra – “Sing joyfully to God, all the earth” expresses well this sentiment, so much so, one could almost imagine those two disciples singing it as they skipped back to Jerusalem to share the Good News. The key, B-flat Major, has been described as being both joyously playful, but also lending itself to solemn reflection; and so, let the Psalmist have the last word, as we return to a new reality, as Christ’s faithful disciples:
They recognised the Lord Jesus at the breaking of bread
Two of the disciples of Jesus were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognising him. He said to them, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped short, their faces downcast.
Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, ‘You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth’ they answered ‘who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they did not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.’
Then he said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets! Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?’ Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.
When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them. ‘It is nearly evening’ they said ‘and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’
They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.