The Room Where It Happens: A reflection on the Road to Emmaus

“The Kitchen Maid” by Diego Velázquez

Not long after I became a deacon, one of my daughter’s friend’s father asked me this question: “Why did you do it?”… meaning “why did you become a deacon?” I gave him an answer that I believed was heartfelt and straightforward and I’ll never forget his next question. It was blunt and unexpected. He inquired: “What do they pay you for doing it?” Caught a bit off guard, I said something to the effect that it wasn’t the pay that motivated me. Please note that he works professionally as a personal financial advisor. He then said: “You know, I always tell my clients that they shouldn’t undertake any activities for which there isn’t a clear and measurable return on investment.”

A clear and measurable return on investment.

That’s something we all learn about in life. Return on investment. Cause and effect. You get out of it what you put into it.

Why are you a person of faith? Why do you pray? Why do you go to Mass? Why receive the sacraments? What’s your return on investment there?

Today’s Gospel is the story of what began on the road to Emmaus, a place just seven miles up from Jerusalem. I love this Gospel. To me, as a Christian, it’s quite compelling. And as a Catholic, it’s incredibly affirming. There are two distinct parts to the story. First, Jesus, who is not recognized by the travelers on the road, talks about their shared faith stories and in doing so, he explains and he instructs. But still they do not recognize him. He is ready to part ways with them as they arrive in Emmaus but upon their insistence, he stays. The second part of the story takes place inside of a special room where he repeated what would become through the centuries his most recognized act: he blessed the bread and broke it. Part one includes the stories of faith and part two includes the Eucharist. Along the road to Emmaus and then inside of that room was, of course, the first recorded Mass. We travel along that road and approach his banquet table every time we witness, every time we celebrate, every time we acknowledge his true presence. Hopefully soon, we will return to that table. Together.

What happens inside of that special room. The room where it happens.

Have you ever found yourself on the outside looking in? At the edges, pushed toward the periphery? Maybe you were not selected to be on a team or part of a group. Maybe you were passed over, left out. Perhaps it was a job or promotion you wanted. Or to be accepted into a particular school. Or friend group. Or maybe someone you cared about rejected you, stepped to the side and passed right by you.

That’s not a great place to be. To be outside the room where it happens.

But have you ever found yourself on the inside? Inside the very best place to be, one of the in crowd, the player chosen first, the person someone else wanted to be with most of all?

Some of us are outside. Some of us are inside. Some of us go back and forth between the two.

Imagine being inside that room with Jesus in the village seven miles outside of Jerusalem. Imagine recognizing Jesus and seeing him right there before your eyes, hearing his stories, knowing he had conquered death… and then hearing that you too could do the same.

And then imagine being outside that room.

The above painting by Diego Velázquez is sometimes called “The Maid at Emmaus” or “The Kitchen Maid”. She is on the outside. The outside of that room. Listening to what is happening inside of it. What does she hear? Look at her face. Look at the expression on her face. Is it the face of someone who is stunned? Is it the face of someone who is disbelieving? Or could it be the face of someone finding the hope she so desperately desires?

We are called to invite others into the room where it happens. That is our mission. To share the Good News. To spread the faith. To help in the search for lost sheep. To uncover the light hidden beneath a bushel basket. To evangelize. Our Church is getting smaller, not bigger. There are more lost sheep than ever before. The light is well hidden.

I would like to share a story I haven’t told before. I have always been extremely reluctant to do so for a few different reasons. It is deeply meaningful to me and it moves me every time I think about it.

Not long after I became a deacon, the cantor in our parish walked up to me after Mass and told me that a young woman had approached her and told her that the homily she had just heard convinced her not to have an abortion. The cantor told me this because the homily came from my lips.

I can’t describe the overwhelming sense I got when I heard this. I was floored, humbled… and more than just a little mystified. Mystified because the homily flashed through my mind and I wondered how it could have had this kind of an impact on anyone. There was nothing in it even remotely related to abortion, life, difficult choices, or life changing circumstances. I did not find a connection anywhere in there, not even a subtle one.

I know the words of that homily were not my own. I know the impact on that young woman and her unborn child was not my own. I know this is what happens when God works, when love and mercy reign. And I am glad to have been even just a small part of it.

I’m also glad the cantor told me about this. Otherwise, I never would have known.

Perhaps there is a now 13 year old child who has stood in front of me at church at some point and I had no idea…

Perhaps there is a now 13 year old child who I see in town from time to time without blinking an eye about it…

I know it’s not about me. And with all due respect to my daughter’s friend’s father, the cause and effect of our work of evangelizing can’t often be measured by us. The return on investment is immense, though frequently impossible for us to calculate. But that’s ok because that’s not why we do it in the first place.

By virtue of our faith, we are in the room where it happens. Many, however, are not. Too many are not.

You may be doing something today that profoundly impacts the life of someone else… and but for someone like a cantor intervening and sharing the details with you, you may never know about it.

Such is the work we are called to do.

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