Emmaus and the Eucharist

Of all the resurrection stories, perhaps my favorite is the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two downcast disciples are wandering away from Jerusalem, away from all their hope, when Jesus walks up and joins them. He playfully pretends not to know what is going on. He wants them to acknowledge their loss so that his Holy Spirit can enter their hearts and rekindle their hope. He breaks open the Scriptures for them, helping them to make sense of the Messiah’s story and their own story. Their hearts expand in a yearning to stay connected with him. He breaks bread with them, at which point they recognize his presence. They hasten to Jerusalem and become witnesses of the resurrection.

But there is more. Luke wrote his Gospel for the sake of early Christian communities who were already gathering Sunday after Sunday to listen to the Scriptures and to “do this in memory of me” by celebrating the Eucharist (Luke 22:19). It is not merely a story about a one-time appearance of Jesus to some guy named Cleopas and some other unnamed guy. It is a story about how every Sunday Eucharist is a life-transforming encounter with the risen Jesus. That which happened to those two disciples on a Sunday is intended for each of us.

Our Sunday worship bears a twofold structure: Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. We listen receptively to the Scriptures and ponder how they connect with our present-day life. We allow our hearts to be set ablaze as we realize how Jesus’ story gives meaning and purpose to our own story. Then we get fed with his very flesh and blood following a ritual reenactment of the once-for-all offering of Jesus. We remember those saving events in a way that allows us to participate in them here and now.

Bishop Robert Barron, in his insightful and inspiring fashion, has drawn many other connections. We begin each Mass by calling on the Lord for mercy: kyrie eleison. Like Cleopas and his friend, we are downcast. Many of the early Church fathers described the fallen human condition as incurvatus. Like the crippled woman in Luke 13, we are bowed down. We are wounded by sin – by the way others’ sins have harmed us and by our own sins. We remain God’s beloved children, inherently good. But we are bent, weighed down, and turned in on ourselves. Without divine mercy, we are like a younger Peter, fluctuating between an “I’ve got this!” grandiosity and an “I’m so horrible!” discouragement.

So, we begin the Mass by acknowledging our sins and inviting the mercy God freely offers us in Christ. We trust that his victory allows us to stand upright – not through our own merits but by his free gift.

Then we listen to the Scriptures and allow them to be broken open for us. In every Sunday Mass, there is a connection between the First Reading and the Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites an adage from the early Church: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (n. 129). There is also a connection between the stories of Scripture and our own personal story – some of which we know with clarity and some of which is a mystery to us. Without the story of Jesus, our own story will remain fragmented and disorienting.

Those of us who are ordained ministers are commissioned by God to proclaim the Gospel with authority. That does not mean that every homily we preach will be brilliant and breathtaking. It does not even mean that we will preach the truth. It does mean that we are called to stand in as Christ, allowing him to speak in and through us. I think every priest or deacon has had the experience of what we thought to be a rather flat performance becoming the divinely chosen moment for one person’s heart to be permanently changed.

The first half of Mass centers around the ambo – the podium at which the Word is proclaimed. We then shift to the altar, which is also a banquet table. All of Scripture and all of the Mass revolve around the paschal mystery of Jesus. “Paschal” is another word for “Passover.” Jesus shows the disciples at Emmaus how the Passover events in Egypt were a prefiguration of his once-for-all Passover offering – which begins at sundown on Holy Thursday. Jesus freely offers himself as the Paschal Lamb – feeding his disciples at table, praying prostrate in the Garden of Gethsemane, suffering and dying on the Cross, proclaiming the Gospel in the realm of the dead, rising in glory, and now robed in human flesh as our great high priest, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. He is both the priest who offers and the victim who is offered. The Mass participates in that one eternal sacrifice. But why? So that we can all join together with him at the banquet table, celebrating his nuptial union with his bride. Every Mass is a taste and glimpse of the wedding feast of heaven. The Eucharist, Christ’s own risen flesh and blood, is both our food for the journey and our medicine. It nourishes, heals, and strengthens us.

Mass ends by sending us forth. “Mass” comes from missa (“sent”). Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can go forth truly changed – having passed over from old to new, no longer downcast but erect, eager to live as witnesses of Jesus’ story that has given so much meaning to our own story. Renewed and sustained by this steady gift, we now have the capacity to live in a way that attracts others to be curious about Jesus.

Until Jesus comes again, the Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church. We fulfill Jesus’ command to “keep on doing this in memory of me.” We remember where we have come from and where we are going. We become again and gain what we one day will be.

The Tomb as a Womb

It was Easter Sunday: April 12, 2009. I stood in awe at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and was the very first pilgrim to enter that morning. It was a transformative experience that I will never forget, an experience almost too real to remember.

The church of the Holy Sepulcher houses both the location of Christ’s death on Calvary and his tomb, made forever holy by his resurrection. My friends and I joined in the Catholic liturgy at those sites for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

It was odd to celebrate those ceremonies in the morning. But Jerusalem is an odd place. Because these holy sites are shared with the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Copts, there is an age-old “Status Quo” agreement that determines who has access when. The Catholic time is 8am, regardless of the occasion.

A few of us returned to the basilica that Holy Saturday night to observe a personal prayer vigil at the Lord’s tomb. I’m ashamed to admit that it is the one and only all-night prayer vigil of my life. For some reason, when it comes to the Lord, that level of sacrifice and generosity is elusive. Too bad, because the Lord is never outdone in generosity!

Knowing that I would be there all night, I was in no rush to “get my prayers done” or to feel like I had to be doing something at any given time. This turned it into a timeless experience. For the first few hours I simply sat back and absorbed the stream of pilgrims that were coming to the church to try to get into the tomb. Occasionally I read some Scripture passages. I began praying for the many people whom I knew needed my prayers. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sorrow over so many suffering souls and so many problems in the world – not to mention my own problems.

Then something happened that (for me) only happens about once every 10 years. I began to get the inklings of a poem swelling up within me. For the moment, I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet! But eventually I opened myself to the movement. The words came rather quickly. It went something like this:

O Tomb of Christ, this Easter Night
I bring to you man’s lonely plight:
toil, trial, sickness, woe,
unceasing wounds left by our foe,
anger, hatred, factions, fights,
fear-filled days and tear-filled nights,
heartache, heartbreak, darkness, death,
and growing pain with every breath –
but hope, hope-filled sadness
to you, the source of gladness.
O tomb that could not hold the Son
Who on this night the victory won,
I bury all my sadness here
and that of those I hold most dear,
that we may rise to second birth
here at the center of the earth.

I was just finishing as the Orthodox began their 2 a.m. Palm Sunday liturgy (their Easter was still a week away). Their somber and sorrowful chanting was beautifully haunting, and resonated with my heart. The time flew by. I began to write on that sheet of paper the names of any and every person I could think of who needed my prayer, as well as my personal intentions. The ink couldn’t run onto the page fast enough. I finished about the time the Orthodox were clearing out.

Ironically, my watch battery had gone dead on Good Friday, so the night was truly timeless. It must have been around 4 a.m. that I attempted to enter the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, “early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). An Armenian priest was setting up for their liturgy, and it seemed quite unlikely I would be allowed in. I began to pray the beads of my Rosary, reflecting on the first glorious mystery – the Resurrection of Jesus – and hoping against hope. For some reason a few of the servers were late, and he waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Marys, and then entered the inner door on my knees. The moment I reached the threshold I broke down and wept as I had not for a very long time. It was such an unburdening and sense of true peace. The best word I can use is GLORY. I experienced the “Glory of the Father” by which “Christ was raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4), and this Glory filled me with Hope. Without eliminating or minimizing my own sadness or the sadness of others, this Hope permeated my soul with a deep confidence summed up in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I prayed for a few moments before heading back out, not wanting to test the limits of Armenian hospitality. With many tears still in my eyes, I silently thanked the priest for his kindness, and returned to the side of the tomb where I had been praying the past few hours. I wedged that sheet of paper and all those intentions into the side of the tomb and continued to weep and shake for several minutes more. Then I resumed my prayer, turning to Romans 6 and feeling the words come alive in my heart. The resurrection suddenly felt so real!

As the first streaks of dawn were just appearing, I pulled out my Liturgy of the Hours book to pray Morning Prayer. My heart was filled with praise, and so I sang the prayers. How surreal it was to stand at the entrance near the church, chanting the antiphon, “Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, Alleluia” – at the very moment that hundreds of pilgrims were streaming in to see the tomb.

I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last six years have I found the courage to plunge deeply into those sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But they were there, and they cried out to the Lord that Easter night in the poem that came out of me. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and heals the brokenhearted.

The tomb is indeed a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for – and resists. It seems like it should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But the resurrection opens an infinitely vaster horizon of human existence. When a baby passes from the security and comfort of the womb into a vast new world, he needs much nurturing, protection, and guidance to grow into it. So do we. That is why we celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday, and once a year with even greater solemnity. We plunge into death with Christ and rise with him in newness. May you and I joyfully claim even more of that newness this year. A blessed Easter to you all!