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 once 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 of Christ. For too many Christians, His Resurrection is simply something they profess their faith in, that is, an astounding event that happened two thousand years ago. But Mr. Chesterton, who was a recent convert to Catholicism when this brief interview took place, well understood that the Resurrection is in fact an event that touches the life of the true believer right here and now, and Jesus Christ not only lives, but He will continue to live with us until the end of the world, as he promised his astonished disciples. True, we do not physically see him standing behind us, or in front of us, but He nonetheless is present with us just as He promised so long ago. Orthodox Christian faith believes this truth fully, and thus a deep faith will sense His presence with us, within us, and it will understand why He is so near to us. He remains here with us to bring us safely home to His Father’s Kingdom.
All too often we Christians act not like men or women reborn from an Easter faith, but rather like the two downcast disciples on the Road to Emmaus. These good men were clearly in a depressed state of mind traceable to the utterly depraved condition of the world that they had just experienced in Jerusalem. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, but, having experienced how the powers of this world had shamefully put Him to death, their great hope seemed to have been shattered, and the world around them understandably now seemed to them a lot darker than it had before the events of Good Friday. So lacking in hope, so distressed in spirit were they now, that even the first reports of the Resurrection could not lift their spirits, and they were tempted to dismiss them as just empty tales with no foundation, and so their lives went on as before this news was brought to them. Indeed, they were so overwhelmed by the recent events that they could not recognize Jesus even when He quietly joined them on their journey.
How often we Christians today can allow the world and all it’s problems and evil, or allow 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 thus, like the two disciples that day we also cannot recognize the presence of Christ who accompanies each of us on our journey in this world. As Chesterton insisted to the reporter, the truth is that Jesus Christ is indeed with us, here and now, and always. That in fact is the Easter faith of the Church, and it is a life transforming faith. And if we cannot recognize His presence in our troubled world, 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 Heaven.
But the event in today’s Gospel reveals to us not only our faith problem, but also reveals to us the solution, that is, how we can once again become open to His presence and receive the help that Christ always offers us, just as much as He helped those two disciples on Easter Sunday to recover their joy, their active faith and their desire to be with Him always, “Stay with us,” they asked, “for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
To strengthen our own faith, we must first ask how did he help these two men to understand what troubled them, that is how to understand His death which had undermined their faith, their hope and their very lives. Jesus helped them understand his death by interpreting for them every passage of Scripture from the Prophets that had referred to Him, and to the necessity for His saving death. We too must learn from this that we will not find true consolation or understanding without turning to God’s Word. And if we are to be taught by God, this turning to God’s Word has to be comprehensive and not piecemeal. It is not enough that we read this or that bit of Scripture. Note that Jesus interpreted for them “every” passage that referred to him. God speaks His Word to us, but His Word cannot be effectively 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, we must note that these two disciples recognized Jesus conclusively only in the Eucharistic action of Jesus in the “breaking of the bread.” They sensed something of Him in His explaining of the Scriptures, and that’s why they asked Him to remain with them, but they came to know Him conclusively only in His “breaking of the bread, which is exactly the way in which the early Church came to describe the Eucharist. Jesus Himself is in control of this whole encounter, and He wills to be recognized, above all, in the action which points to 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, then 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 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 of Scripture 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 properly receive, 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/
This Easter faith, coupled with the special encounter with Christ in the Eucharist is truly a life-transforming gift. It restores a joy to our life that cannot be taken away regardless of what the world does to us, just as Jesus promised: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:22) Those who have a living faith in the Resurrection and the Eucharist come to know this joy, and life truly becomes worth living, regardless of the circumstances. That is what I mean by a life transforming faith
In short, if we are to maintain our mental 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, as Chesterton said, 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 we will discover the wisdom of the ages and of God’s holy ones.