In today’s gospel we encounter two discouraged and broken men making their way to Emmaus. The text describes them as “downcast.” That is to say, their eyes are cast to the ground; their heads are hung low. Their Lord and Messiah has been killed—the one they had thought would finally liberate Israel. Yes, it is true that some women claimed he was alive, but these disciples have discredited those reports and are now leaving Jerusalem. It is late in the afternoon; the sun is sinking low.
The men cannot see or understand God’s plan. They cannot “see” that he must be alive, just as they were told. They are quite blind to the glorious things that have already happened, just hours before. Their eyes are cast downward. And in this they are much like us, who also struggle to see and understand that we have already won the victory. Too easily we are discouraged, our eyes cast downward in depression rather than upward in faith.
In effect, if you are prepared to “see” it, the Lord will celebrate Holy Mass with them. In the context of the sacred meal we call the Mass, he will open their eyes and they will recognize him; they will see glory and new life.
These men are also heading in the wrong direction. They need to be reoriented by the Lord. They need to turn around and go back to the Liturgical East, back to Jerusalem, back toward the resurrection, back to the light, away from the setting sun to the West where they are currently headed.
The Lord will open their eyes and reorient them with the repast we have come to know as the Holy Mass. Through this celebration, he will open their eyes and reorient them. He will, in the words of today’s Psalm, “Show them the path of life.”
Note that the whole Gospel, not just the last part, is in the form of a Mass. There is a gathering, a penitential rite, a Liturgy of the Word, Intercessory prayers, a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and an Ite Missa est. And in this manner of a whole Mass, they have their eyes opened to Him and to glory; the Lord reorients them, turning them around in the right direction. So too for us who attend Mass, if we are faithful.
Let’s look at this Mass and see how the Lord uses it to accomplish these ends.
Stage One: Gathering Rite – The curtain rises on this Mass with two disciples having gathered together on a journey: Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus (Lk 24:13). We have already discussed above that they were in the midst of a serious struggle and are downcast. We only know one of them by name: Cleopas. Who is the other? If you are prepared to accept it, the other is you. So they (this means you; this means me) have gathered. This is what we do as the preliminary act of every Mass. We who are pilgrims on a journey come together.
It so happens for these two disciples that Jesus joins them: And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them (Luke 24:15). The text goes on to inform us that they did not yet recognize Jesus.
The Lord walks with us too. For us who gather at Mass, it is essential to acknowledge by faith that when we gather together, the Lord Jesus is with us. Scripture says, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). It is a fact for many of us too, that Jesus, though present, is unrecognized! Yet he is no less among us than he was present to these two disciples who fail to recognize him.
Liturgically, we acknowledge the presence of the Lord at the beginning of the Mass in two ways. First, as the priest processes down the aisle the congregation sings a hymn of praise. It is not “Fr. Jones” they praise, it is Jesus (whom “Fr. Jones” represents) that they praise. Once at the Chair, the celebrant (who is really Christ) says, “The Lord be with you.” And he thereby announces the presence of Christ among us as promised by the Scriptures.
The Mass has begun; our two disciples are gathered, and the Lord is with them. So too for us at every Mass. The two disciples still struggle to see the Lord; they struggle to experience new life and to recognize that the victory has already been won. And so too do some of us who gather for Mass. But the simple fact that these disciples (we) are gathered is already the beginning of the solution. Mass has begun; help is on the way!
Stage Two: Penitential Rite – The two disciples seem troubled and the Lord inquires of them the source of their distress: What are you discussing as you walk along? (Lk 24:17) In effect, the Lord invites them to speak with him about what is troubling them. It may also be a gentle rebuke from the Lord that the two of them are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the site of the resurrection.
Clearly their sorrow and distress are governing their behavior. Even though they have already heard evidence of his resurrection (cf 24:22-24), they seem hopeless and have turned away from this good news. As we have noted, the text describes them as “downcast.” (24:17)
Thus the Lord engages them in a kind of gentle penitential rite and wants to engage them on their negativity.
So too for us at Mass. The penitential rite is a moment when the celebrant (who is really Christ) invites us to lay down our burdens and sins before the Lord, who alone can heal us. For we too often enter the presence of God looking downcast and carrying many burdens and sins. We too, like these disciples, may be walking in wrongful directions. And so the Lord says to us in effect, “What are thinking about and doing as you walk along? Where are you going with your life?
The Lord asks them, and us, to articulate our struggles. This calling to mind of our struggles in the penitential rite is a first step toward healing and the recovery of sight.
And thus we see again, in this story about two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Mass that is so familiar to us.
Stage Three: Liturgy of the Word – In response to their concerns and struggles, the Lord breaks open the Word of God—the Scriptures. The text says, Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).
Notice that not only does the Lord refer to Scripture, he interprets it for them. Hence there is not just the reading of the Word, there is a homily as well: an explanation of the Scripture and the application of it to the struggles these men have. The homily must have been a good one too, for later the disciples remark: Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)
And so too for us at Mass. Regardless of what struggles we may have brought to the Mass, the Lord bids us to listen to His Word as the Scriptures are proclaimed. Then the homilist (who is really Christ) interprets and applies the Word to our life. It is true that the Lord works through a weak human agent (the priest or deacon), but God can write straight with crooked lines. As long as the homilist is orthodox, it is Christ who speaks. Pray for your homilist to be an obedient and useful instrument for Christ at the homily.
Notice too, that although the disciples do not yet fully see, their downcast attitude has been abated. Their hearts are now on fire. Pray God, too, for us who come to Mass Sunday after Sunday and hear from God how victory is already ours in Christ Jesus. God reminds us, through successive Sundays and through passages that repeat every three years, that though the cross is part of our life, the resurrection surely is too. And we are carrying our crosses to an eternal Easter victory. If we are faithful in listening to God’s Word, hope and joy build within our hearts and we come, through being transformed by Christ in the Liturgy, to be men and women of hope and confidence.
Stage Four: Intercessory Prayers – After the homily, we usually make requests of Christ. We do this based on the hope, that His Word provides us, that He lives, He loves us, and He is able. And so it is that these two disciples make a request of Christ: Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over. (Luke 24:29)
Is this not what we also say in so many words? “Stay with us Lord, for it is sometimes dark in our lives and the shadows are growing long. Stay with us Lord and with those we love so that we will not be alone in the dark. In our darkest hours, be to us a light O Lord—a light that never fades away.”
And indeed it is already getting brighter, for we are already more than halfway through the Mass!
Stage Five: Liturgy of the Eucharist – Christ does stay with them. And then come the lines that no Catholic could miss: And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them (Luke 24:30). Yes, it is the Mass to be sure. All the basic actions of the Eucharist are there: he took, blessed, broke, and gave. It is the same activity as took place at the Last Supper and occurs at every Mass. Later, the two disciples will refer back to this moment as the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35), a clear biblical reference to the Holy Eucharist.
And so the words of the Mass come immediately to mind: “While they were at supper He took the bread, and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, take this all of you and eat it: this is my Body which will be given up for you.”
A fascinating thing happens though: With that, their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:31).
Note that it is the very act of consecration that opens their eyes. Is this not what Holy Communion is to do for us? Are we not to learn to recognize Christ by the very mysteries we celebrate? Are we not to Taste and See?
The Liturgy and the Sacraments are not merely rituals; they are encounters with Jesus Christ. Through our repeated celebration of the holy mysteries, our eyes are increasingly opened if we are faithful. We learn to see and hear Christ in the Liturgy, to experience His ministry to us.
The fact that Jesus vanishes from their sight teaches us that he is no longer seen by the eyes of the flesh, but by the eyes of faith, the eyes of the heart. So though he is gone from our earthly, fleshly, carnal sight, he is now to be seen in the Sacrament of the Altar, and experienced in the Liturgy and other Sacraments. The Mass has reached its pinnacle for these two disciples and for us: they/we have tasted and now see.
Consider these two men (and us) who began this Gospel quite downcast. Now their hearts are on fire and they see. The Lord has celebrated Mass to get them to this point. And so too for us, the Lord celebrates Mass to set our hearts on fire and to open our eyes to glory. We need to taste in order to see. Ponder these verses from Psalm 34:
I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. …Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:4-8).
Yes, blessed are we if we taste faithfully in order to see, every Sunday at Mass.
Stage six: Ite Missa est – Not able to contain their joy or hide their experience, the two disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell their brethren what has happened and how they encountered Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They want to, they have to speak of the Christ they have encountered, what he said and what he did.
How about us? At the end of every Mass, the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” This does NOT mean, “OK, we’re done here; go on home and have a nice day.” What it DOES mean is, “Go now out into the world and bring the Christ you have received to others. Tell them what you have heard and seen here, what you have experienced. Share the joy and hope that this Liturgy gives with others.”
Did you notice part of the word MISSion in the word disMISSal? You are being commissioned—sent on a mission to announce Christ to others.
The Lucan text we are reviewing says of these two disciples, So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them…Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:33,35). Note that they have turned around now and are heading in the right direction: back to the Liturgical East, back to the light, back to the resurrection, back from the West and the darkness.
How about us? Does our Mass finish as well, as enthusiastically? Can you tell others that you have come to Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” in the Mass?
So Jesus has used the Mass to draw the disciples from gloom to glory, from downcast to delighted, from darkness to light, from disorientation to orientation. It was the Mass; do you “see” it there? It is the Mass. What else could it be?