Note: The following homily was preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on Easter Monday, April 5, 2021.
In many countries, today is a legal holiday; in Italy, the day is dubbed “Pasquetta” or “Little Easter.” The Church, however, goes beyond a two-day celebration of the Resurrection of her Lord; she can’t stop singing her “Alleluias” for a full week – an octave observance – and for a very practical reason: The event we celebrate cannot be contained or apprehended in a single day; even an octave of days does not suffice, but let’s give it a try.
“The mystery of faith,” the priest proclaims. Notice that he does not say,”A mystery of faith,” but the mystery. And what is that mystery? It is the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection sacramentally re-enacted upon the altar, bringing the central event of human history into the present. It is the mystery of the Incarnation extended in space and time through the Church. It is the mystery of God’s love for mankind, the sign of His desire to be close to those He loves. It is the mystery which looks to the day of Christ’s return as Judge of the world, ushering in those days when sacraments shall cease because God “will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), because then we “shall know even as [we] are known” (1 Cor 13:12).
And all this explains why we fast, why we genuflect, why we receive Holy Communion only in the state of grace, why we have a special love for the priests who bring us this mystery, why we are concerned with fostering vocations in young men to take their places.
On Easter night in the Ordinary Form, today in the Extraordinary Form, and once again on the Third Sunday of Easter in the Ordinary Form (Year B), the Church has us re-read the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, the Emmaus story, my favorite passage in the New Testament. As you heard, it is Easter night as two lonely, frustrated disciples of Jesus are on the road when they meet a Stranger who engages them in conversation about the meaning of the Scriptures which have to do with the suffering and death of the Messiah. They are so intrigued by Him that they invite Him to share a meal with them, and then in a glorious reversal of roles, the Guest becomes the Host as He “breaks bread” for them, opening their eyes to recognize Him as none other than the Risen Lord, in which moment He vanishes from their sight.
Luke passed on this story of rare charm and beauty because he was writing for people so much like us, people who were living some thirty or forty years after Christ’s Death and Resurrection, people who had never known Him in His earthly life, people who perhaps felt cheated for having missed out on that experience. They were also people who well may have fallen into the habit of celebrating the Eucharist without enthusiasm or awareness of the greatness of the mystery. Many of you will remember the time we devoted to artistic depictions of this pericope during our Lenten series on the Eucharist in music and art. The point driven home by the Emmaus story is a very profound one, namely, that we who live two millennia after the Lord’s Death and Resurrection are no worse off than those who walked and talked with Him, a statement very subtly made as we learn that the very minute those two disciples recognized Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” He vanished from their sight. Therefore, our forebears in the faith had no advantage over us, for we have access to the Risen Lord in a way every bit as real as they.
Well, then, is this a story about the Resurrection or about the Eucharist? Both – at one and the same time – for we behold the Risen Christ precisely in the Eucharist, the mystery of faith, as the Sacred Liturgy speaks of it. And that fundamental mystery contains within it every other mystery of faith. St. Luke’s story is like a comprehensive catechism, presenting the basics of Christian doctrine – all of which lead us not to mere intellectual knowledge for its own sake but to a deep, personal experience of the Risen Lord. The best way to prove what I’m saying is to follow the Lord’s example, as Luke communicated it to us. When Jesus wanted to enlighten those two confused disciples, He joined them on a walk. May I invite you to join me on the walk to Emmaus, a walk which once led two men to know the Lord in a new, unique, exciting and vibrant way?
Luke introduces us to two disciples leaving Jerusalem, en route to the backwater town of Emmaus. Jerusalem is the reference point because it was there that Jesus underwent His redemptive Death, and notice – the disciples are getting away from Jerusalem as fast as they can; they don’t want to be the next to suffer, which is to say that they reject the notion of a suffering Messiah. However, the Stranger goes to great lengths to show just how necessary Christ’s Passion was. The obvious conclusion to draw is that the Lord came into His glory only because He accepted the ignominious death of the Cross. The application to a would-be believer in any age should also be obvious: We have no right to expect a share in Christ’s Resurrection if we refuse to be identified with Him by accepting a share in His sufferings.
It is also important to realize that this saving encounter occurs because Jesus takes the initiative, not because they were clever enough to contract the services of a good guest speaker or because they saw the intriguing possibilities of getting onboard a winning team. Rather, Jesus approaches them and offers them the occasion to embark on a life of faith. Humility calls us to consider the fact that God chose us in Christ; we did not choose Him. He invites us to believe, but He will never force Himself upon us. Only a thoroughly engaged personal response can guarantee that great things happen.
What had kept those two disciples in Jesus’ company during His earthly life and ministry? They tell us themselves: “We were hoping that He was the one. . .” Hope is the critical virtue. If any element is lacking in contemporary life, it is hope, and that is why we witness so many succumb to the ultimate act of despair through suicide. But our hope must never be misplaced; we trust in Christ and in the power flowing from His Resurrection; a hope grounded in any lesser reality is less than true hope, providing us with faulty assurances and depressing results.
As the journey progresses, they reach an inn, and they ask the Stranger to stay with them.
Why? Only conjecture is possible: Was it their desire to continue a conversation on a topic dear to them? Was it to distract them from their sadness and loss, or to keep their hopes kindled? Was it an exercise in Christian charity, in fidelity to Christ’s commands? Whatever the explanation, the request “Stay with us” needs to be the plea to the Lord from every believer. And He then proceeds to show them how He could remain with them.
Jesus performs an action which Luke’s audience around 80 A.D. would clearly have perceived as a Eucharistic service, using ritual, familiar language and gestures: “He took bread, pronounced the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them.” With what result? “Their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.” Then what? “He vanished from their sight.” How odd, until one sees what Luke was trying to do. Poetically and beautifully, he is saying that the presence of the Earthly Jesus is not needed when one has the Eucharistic Jesus. Having prepared the disciples by breaking the bread of God’s Word with them on the road, the Risen Lord then breaks the bread of His Body. Isn’t that exactly what we do in every Mass as the Sacred Scriptures are proclaimed and explained, making our hearts burn within us for yet more? And the ever-generous God does give us more – in the gift of His Son’s Body and Blood.
I should note that this entire passage is focused on one word. A Scripture scholar, who perhaps had little else to do with his time, informs us that a counting up of the words demonstrates that the exact mid-point of the story is the word “alive”, as the women convey their “tale”, to quote their skeptical hearers. Christian faith must, of course, hold that Jesus is risen or alive, but not just in Heaven, removed from us until Judgment Day. We experience Jesus as “alive” most especially through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which comes to us through the Church, His mystical Body.
This is the case because Christ has willed to be inseparable from His Church: He is the Head; we are the members. That Church has a divinely established order to it – a priestly order which makes the Eucharist present on our altars and a priestly order which preaches the Word of God as the Emmaus story likewise makes clear. Hence, the women’s testimony is not accepted. Neither is the story of the two disciples, it would seem, for they are greeted with the line: “The Lord has been raised! It is true! He has appeared to Simon.” These private revelations or experiences of the Risen Christ, as inspiring as they might have been, had to be validated or confirmed by the witness of the divinely appointed teachers, the Apostles, and most particularly, by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Only then does the proclamation of the disciples and the women have meaning. To this day, any who would want to have the Eucharistic Christ must receive Him from His Church, which automatically means accepting the teaching authority of that Church and putting it into practice in one’s daily life.
Having been nourished by the Eucharist, believers must also imitate those early disciples by going forth to share the good news of the Risen Christ with all they meet. Mission-mindedness must be the hallmark of every Christian, as Vatican II reminded us, which requires personal efforts at evangelization and support for the work of those committed to full-time missionary labors. After all, wasn’t it Christian hospitality to the itinerant preacher which enabled those two disciples only later to discover it was Christ all along – the Christ who so often comes in the guise of the poor and the needy, or the Christ who is revealed in a special way by missionaries?
The Stranger of Emmaus leads the disciples from blindness, to sight, to insight. The pattern of faith described is most interesting: incipient faith. . . shaken faith. . . disillusionment. . . understanding. . . true faith. That was the pattern for the Apostles, for the disciples, and it is so for us as well. True faith is only a faith which has been tested, but in the testing, we need to remember and to believe that Jesus is there with us on the road – sustaining us with His Word and His Body, moving us forward to the Kingdom where the wedding feast of the Lamb has already begun.
On that last day, I would not be surprised if Christ will begin His final revelation by doing something very familiar to us, something that would give us a clue as to what is about to happen. It may be that He will “break bread” for us in that heavenly feast and, as we fall down in adoration (as we do at that action here on earth), Jesus will not vanish from our sight as He did at Emmaus; no, He will reveal Himself to us in all His glory. The mystery of faith will no longer be mysterious, nor will we have need of faith, but we will understand with certainty how the Eucharist did indeed keep us on the road – to Jerusalem and beyond – and how it kept our eyes fixed on a Jesus who is very much alive. Our prayer, “Stay with us,” will be answered on that day when the Lord invites us to stay with Him.
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