Third Sunday of Easter – May 8, 2011 – St. John’s
What a rich set of readings we are blessed with today with which to continue our reflection on and thanksgiving for what God has done for Christ and for us in his resurrection! In them we can hear and almost feel the awe and joy with which the disciples of Jesus themselves received the good news of Christ’s resurrection and then began to preach it as what St. Paul would call the “word of salvation,” the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and the reconciliation of the whole world to God. We see and hear Christianity, the Church, being born out of faith in the risen Lord.
Our first reading gives us a summary of how the resurrection was preached. It comes from St. Luke’s account of Pentecost: the speech with which Peter interpreted the signs seen and heard by the crowd. He presents the resurrection of Christ as the fulfilment of the hope raised by passages like the Psalm Peter quotes that in the messianic age God would raise the dead: “My flesh too will dwell in hope, because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption.” This passage could not refer to David the Psalmist himself. No, it referred to the Messiah, and “God raised this Jesus,” Peter proclaims; the final resurrection has begun.
But it is especially the Gospel reading that recommends itself to our attention. It is a beautifully crafted composition, in St. Luke’s Gospel, the most literary of all the Gospels. But the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is also very rich theologically and psychologically also. We catch the disciples in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic scenes of the end of Jesus’ life. Despite some stories that had begun to circulate, they are leaving Jerusalem because, it seems, as they were to tell the stranger they encounter, they felt that their hope “that he would be the one to redeem Israel” had been proven wrong. Nothing in the common Jewish expectations had prepared them for a Messiah whose work ended in such failure, disgrace, and agony. Those poignant words express so simply what must have been experienced by many of the disciples of Jesus: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
The response of the stranger in turn describes the task the early Church had to undertake: “‘How slow of heart you are to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” The dramatic events they had witnessed led the disciples to reread their sacred books and gave them eyes to discover in them anticipations of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, as in the Psalm that Peter would quote or in another Psalm that we hear often during this season: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner-stone.” This is why still today we search the Scriptures we hear each Sunday for what they have to tell us about Christ.
But this is not the only link with what we have gathered to do here. Although the two disciples feel their hearts burning within them as the stranger interprets the Scriptures to them, it is only at the breaking of the bread that they recognize the stranger to be Jesus. The evocation of the eucharist is deliberate and unmistakable: “While he was at table with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” These words read already like a liturgical formula, one found in the other Synoptic Gospels and in a letter of St. Paul, the formula we ourselves use still today. “The breaking of the bread” has already become an almost technical term for the eucharist, for the rite in which the Church recognizes the presence of the Lord Jesus.
This lovely story, then, describes what we are about at each Mass. Here the Lord first breaks the bread that is the Word of God in the Scriptures as they are interpreted in the light of Christ and of his death and resurrection, the bread that we receive with the confession of faith by which we take it into our hearts and minds. And then in the breaking of the eucharistic bread, we discover another and even fuller presence of Christ, as his death and resurrection are re-enacted and we become what we receive, the very Body of Christ that is the Church. The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, then, is not just a story about the past, about some other people; it is our story, too–res nostra agitur–; it is our story, that is, if we, too, recognize Christ in the two breakings of the bread.