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.