3rd Sunday of Easter
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
The great English writer G. K. Chesterton was asked by a reporter what he would do if the Risen Christ were now standing right behind him. The questioner knew of Chesterton’s firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but he was not prepared for the answer he got from Mr. Chesterton who simply replied “but he is.”
Unfortunately, not many Christians today have this clear insight and deep faith when it comes to the Resurrection. For too many of us, the Resurrection of Jesus is simply something we profess our faith in as an event that truly happened two thousand years ago. Mr. Chesterton, who was a recent convert to the faith when this little interview took place, understood that the Resurrection is in fact an event that touches the life of the true believer here and now and that Jesus Christ not only lives, but lives with us until the end of the world, as he promised his disciples. True, we do not physically see him standing behind us, or in front of us, but He is surely with us just as He promised. Christian faith believes this truth, and a deep faith senses His presence with us, in us, and understands why He is so near to us. His here with us to bring us safely to His Father’s Kingdom.
All too often we Christians act not like men or women of faith, but rather like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. These good men were clearly in a depressed state of mind due to the depraved condition of the world they had just experienced in Jerusalem. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, but now that he had been shamefully put to death their hopes seem to have been shattered, and the world understandably now seemed to them a lot darker than it had before the events of Good Friday. So down in hope, so distressed in spirit were they, that even the first reports of the Resurrection could not lift their spirits, and they dismissed them as just empty tales with no foundation. Indeed, they were so overwhelmed by the recent events that they did not recognize Jesus even when He literally joined them on their journey.
How often we Christians today allow the world and all it’s evil, or just some serious problem in our personal lives, to overwhelm us to the point that we can find no solace, no comfort, even in the truth of the Resurrection, and so we cannot recognize the presence of Christ who accompanies each of us on our journey to heaven. Jesus Christ is with us, here and now and always; that is the faith of the Church, and if we cannot recognize His presence, it’s not because Christ has abandoned us, but because we either have abandoned Him, or we are so caught up in our own problems, or the world’s problems, that we can no longer sense his presence as the Risen Lord who remains with us on our journey to our Emmaus.
But the event in today’s Gospel not only reveals to us our problem, but also reveals to us the solution, how we can once again become open to His presence and receive the help Christ offers us, just as much as the help he offered those two disciples on Easter Sunday.
First of all, how did he help them to understand what troubled them, His death which had undermined their hope and their very lives. He interpreted for them every passage of scripture from the Prophets that had referred to Him, and to the saving necessity for his death. We must learn that we too will not find consolation or understanding without turning to God’s word. And this turning to God’s word has to be comprehensive, and not piecemeal, if we are to be taught by God. It is not enough to read this or that bit of scripture – Jesus interpreted for them “every” passage that referred to him. God speaks His word to us, but His word cannot be truly understood except within the context of the whole of His teaching. That is why the early Christians devoted themselves immediately to the instruction of the Apostles in the Word of God.
Secondly, these two disciples recognized Jesus conclusively in the Eucharistic action of the breaking of the bread. They sensed something of Him in the explaining of the Scriptures, but they came to know Him conclusively in the Breaking of the Bread, which is what they called the Eucharist. Jesus is in control in this whole encounter, and He wills to be recognized, above all, in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. It is precisely there, in the Blessed Sacrament, that faith must recognize His remaining with us, if we are ever to recognize His presence in our daily life, standing behind us, with us, as Chesterton affirmed to that reporter. If we do not recognize Him in the Eucharist, we will not fully appreciate his presence in the Word, and we will likely lose our sense of His presence in our daily lives.
How often people who are having difficulties in this world, perhaps with this world, cut themselves off from the only true source of consolation and hope. They allow their problems to overwhelm them and they stop going to Church. It’s like the madness of a person who gets a physical disease deciding to stop seeing the doctor. Perhaps they look for some understanding, but they seem to think God will bypass the ordinary means of spiritual health, and speak directly to them. The disciples on the road needed to listen to Jesus, not just talk to each other about their problems – the blind leading the blind, as it were. And they needed to have the whole corpus of teaching to understand the details. That is what Jesus gave them as a pure gift.
We can see that the sequence of events in this Gospel account of Emmaus is very much like our Mass, spread over time. The Church gives us the whole corpus of God’s teaching in the Liturgy of the Word, but only spread over time. So when people only attend Mass sporadically, or absent themselves for long blocks of time, of course they find no consolation, no insight into their own problems from the Word of God! The details give light only when seen in the light of the whole – that’s why Jesus had to interpret all the passages that referred to him for the two disciples to understand why he had to die! The Word of God gives light and comfort. but only if it is approached as God’s Word, a word which is as unified as God is.
And, secondly, only if we are first nourished by God’s Word, truly nourished, over time, can we proceed to recognize Jesus in the second part of the Mass, the Breaking of the Bread, the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Holy Communion. So in today’s Gospel, Jesus is demonstrating, as it were, the Christian learning curve: first the encounter with the Word of God in Scripture, and then the encounter with the Word of God made flesh in the Sacrament of the Altar.
If we are to maintain our equilibrium and Christian joy in a difficult world, we must learn to surrender ourselves to a comprehensive approach to the Sacred Word and to a living faith in the Eucharistic Sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice and Holy Communion. From Christ’s example on the road to Emmaus, we must learn that the two parts go absolutely hand in hand. If we do not surrender to this ordered path to God, we will never recognize the Risen Lord, in the Eucharist, or standing behind us in our daily life. If we do, then we poor souls will have not simply the wisdom of a man like Chesterton, who I’m sure would have considered himself the least in God’s kingdom, but the wisdom of the ages and of God’s holy ones.