The ROAD to EMMAUS: ACCOMPANYING the SICK on their JOURNEY

In recounting the events of Easter Sunday, The Gospel of Luke presents us with the beautiful narrative in which Jesus walks with the two disciples travelling on the road to Emmaus. The disciples were speaking to each other about their sorrow and disappointment about what had happened to Jesus. They “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). But his crucifixion led them to believe that their hopes had been dashed. The Risen Jesus walks with them unrecognized, opens the scriptures to them and shows them the necessity “that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26). Then, he reveals himself “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). This gospel narrative is marvelously rich and has so very much to teach us. For those of us involved in the ministry of health care, it has something special to teach us. We are invited to understand this gospel account of Jesus’ accompaniment of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as a model for how we are called to accompany the persons in our care.

One of the words most frequently spoken by Pope Francis is the word “accompany.” To accompany is to be a companion on someone’s journey. When Pope Francis uses this word, he is often speaking about the call to accompany the poor and the needy, to walk with them and assist them in their journey through life.

People who suffer illness and are hospitalized are some of the neediest we are likely to encounter. They are in need of medical care, but they are also in need of comfort, consolation and the assurance that they are not alone in their struggle. They are on a journey. For many, the journey will take them down the path of suffering and fear, but will lead to recovery and health. For some, the hard road of suffering will lead to death and they and their loved ones will need to be assured that the journey will go on and that death is not the end. As disciples of Jesus, how are those of us involved in the ministry of health care to accompany these people?

As always, Jesus is our model. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus accompanies the disciples first of all by listening. “He drew near to them and walked with them” (Luke 24:15). He asks them what they are “discussing as they walk along” (Luke 24:17) and, when they tell him, he inquires further about “what sorts of things” (Luke 24:19) they are referring to. Jesus didn’t draw near to the disciples just to tell them something. He did teach them, but only after he listened to them, taking an interest in their lives, their hopes, and their fears. This is what it means to accompany, to be a companion. We can only walk with a person along the journey of his or her life if we are willing to listen to that person’s story and hear that person’s concerns.

Having listened to the disciples, Jesus opens their minds to the truth of God’s word. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). This was no mere academic exercise. What Jesus shows them is not just a timeless truth or a correct hermeneutical approach to Sacred Scripture. The truth of God’s word that Jesus reveals provides the answers to the very questions with which the disciples were struggling and shows the meaning and purpose of the events that had so discouraged them. Jesus words address their problems and give new direction to their journey. “They set out at once and returned to Jerusalem” (Luke 24:33). When, having first listened, we have the opportunity to speak to the sick persons we accompany, we are called to do likewise. We are to speak the word of God, expressing the truth that comes from God and not from ourselves. We are to demonstrate how the truth God reveals addresses the concerns of the persons we accompany and gives them new direction and new hope.

After Jesus “spoke to [the disciples] on the way and opened the scriptures to [them]” (Luke 24:32), he stayed with them and broke bread with them. It was only then that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). When we accompany the sick as disciples of Jesus, we bring the presence of Jesus with us. This is especially true for ministers of Holy Communion. When we administer Holy Communion, Jesus is most truly and really present to the sick persons we accompany. Through that ministry, and in all the ways we are enabled to serve as his ministers to our sick brothers and sisters, Jesus uses us as his instruments to open their eyes to his presence. When we faithfully serve Jesus by accompanying the sick through listening, speaking God’s word, and administering Holy Communion, we can truly say of the persons we accompany what Saint Luke said of the disciples Jesus accompanied on the road to Emmaus: “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).