Third Sunday of Easter
My friends in Christ, there is something that I would propose to you about our Gospel text today from Saint Luke, and it is this; that on the road to Emmaus, what we encounter is the second Mass ever celebrated in the history of Christianity.
The first Mass ever celebrated, of course, was the Last Supper; and Jesus Christ Himself was the main celebrant. He instituted the Eucharist at the first Mass and at the same time also instituted the priesthood so that the Mass would continue to be celebrated unto the end of time. (“Do this in memory of Me.”)
But how was the road to Emmaus the second Mass ever celebrated? First of all, consider our own experience with the Sunday Mass, from beginning to end, as this Gospel scene from Saint Luke unfolds. What is going on here before Jesus enters the scene? The narrative tells us that those two disciples “were conversing and debating.” Indeed they were speaking “about all the things that had occurred” over the weekend. Sound familiar? What are we usually doing as we gather at the church for Mass? Talking about the week, catching up on a bit of news, visiting with various people whom we have not seen since last weekend. Conversing, yes – and sometimes even a bit of debating. You know it as well as I!
Okay, but that is just so trivial; how is that an indication that the Mass is taking place here on the road to Emmaus? Thus we consider what happens next in this scene. “Jesus Himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.” Now that is strange I think – because how could they not have recognized Him? They were His disciples!
But in fact, in Catholic Christian theology, we know that it is very often just so hard for us, too, to recognize Christ where Christ plainly is. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats; Jesus tells us, “Whatever you [do, or do not do] for one of these least brothers of Mine, you [do, or do not do] for Me.” He is right there in the starving person begging for food on a street corner...its a mystery that He is somehow there even in the rapist who raped and murdered your child. Yes, He is there, too – yes, even there. And it is just so hard for us to see Him sometimes.
In the context of the Mass, Catholic theology actually teaches us that Christ is present in at least three distinct ways. We remember that Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King. Priest offers the Sacrifice – and in fact, in this case with Christ, is the Sacrifice; Christ is right there in the Eucharist. Prophet proclaims the Word of God; when the lector, the deacon, the priest proclaims Sacred Scripture at Mass, Christ is right there in the Word that is proclaimed...in the person who proclaims it. King presides and serves; the priest or the bishop who presides at Mass does so in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”).
And think about it – it can be so difficult to recognize Jesus in the lector who proclaims the Word of God when that same person dinged my car the other day, or goes bowling with me, or has a drinking problem; and it can be so difficult to recognize Jesus also in the Eucharist when what we merely see and taste and touch is a tasteless bread wafer and cheap wine; and most certainly it can be so difficult for us to recognize Jesus in the person of the priest presiding at Mass – especially when he is just such a huge, bungling clown with more bad jokes than holy wisdom!
In any event, while it might seem strange to us that those two disciples could not recognize Jesus at first, in fact, it is not really so strange when we ourselves can have such a difficult time of it recognizing Jesus in our neighbor, in the Eucharist, and certainly in the priest.
But what happens next that reveals the road to Emmaus as the second Mass ever celebrated in the history of Christianity? Those two disciples encountered Jesus with their burden of concerns and questions, and that, too, is not very unlike us, is it? How often do we come to Mass, though we are preoccupied with many a troubling thing? And as soon as I even ask that question, our thinking goes right to whatever troubles us right now – myself included!
But then what happens next is that Jesus immediately refers to the Word of God in striving to address their questions and concerns. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them what referred to Him in all” of Sacred Scripture; and this, obviously, would be the Liturgy of the Word which comprises the first half of the Mass as we know it. He undoubtedly made specific reference to biblical texts, thereby proclaiming the Word of God; He next interprets the Word of God, thereby preaching His homily.
And then, they arrive at their destination, and they invite Jesus to remain with them, for the day is almost over. And here, we come upon the culmination of this entire scene; “and it happened that, while He was with them at table,” “He Himself took [the] bread and, giving...thanks...said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to” them. That portion of this Gospel text should sound rather familiar, for it is basically the same words spoken by the priest at the Mass when he prays the words of institution and confects the Eucharist, transforming the bread into the Sacred Body of Christ.
And then, something truly extraordinary occurs. “With that, their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, but He vanished from their sight.”
Now...why would that be? Why would that happen? Because if the bread that He broke for them were just plain bread, then I submit to you that His vanishing act would just be plain, maniacal cruelty and Jesus would be no better than David Blaine – and why in the world should we believe in a Lord like that? And furthermore, if that were just plain bread, then I seriously doubt that those two disciples would have reacted the way they did. If that were just plain bread, then I could sooner have it that they would respond, “Aw shucks! It sure was nice having Him around while He was with us; too bad He was just another fake, like David Blaine.” But no, that is not what happened! That is not how they reacted. Instead, they reacted in a way that clearly reflects a profound growth in faith and a broadened, deepened sense of the divine. “Were not our hearts burning within us while He spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” And what did they do then? Why, they got right up (“Go forth; the Mass is ended.”) – and set out at once and returned to Jerusalem to proclaim the Good News that the Lord is risen; truly He is risen...that the Lord was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Because Jesus vanished in His bodily form...but notice when that happened. It happened at the precise moment when Jesus Himself took bread and, giving thanks, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to the two disciples; in other words, it happened at the exact moment when mere bread became His Sacred Body. And so, while He did vanish in bodily form...He was still present in Eucharistic form.
Now, of course, that second Mass ever celebrated in the history of Christianity there on the road to Emmaus does not totally appear to be the Mass as we know it today, that much is true. But it would not be much longer (only about a century later) when one of the first truly great apologetics experts of Christianity, Saint Justin Martyr, essentially describes the unfolding of Mass almost exactly as we have it today. The Mass predates and is way more ancient than basically every other Christian form of prayer and worship. The Mass is older even than the Bible itself when we really get down to it. And why the Mass holds pride of place and the highest honor is because, as I say, Christ is there, right there, in the Mass – in the Word of God proclaimed; in the person of the priest; and above all in the Eucharist.... May it be then that our piety and reverence in the Mass (even if we cannot actually be here but can only tune in remotely at home), and also that our humble adoration of Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, will merit great reward for the salvation of our souls in our holy striving to give honor to the glory of God’s majesty.
on Sunday, April 26 at 3:09PM