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Today’s gospel reading from Luke 24:13-35 recounts the encounter with the Risen Christ that two disciples, Cleopas and Simon, had on their journey to the village of Emmaus. Cleopas (or Clopas) was the brother of St. Joseph, and Simon was his son (and later the second bishop of Jerusalem after the Apostle John). When they meet Jesus, they do not recognize our Lord at first, which indicates Jesus appears to them in a form that is not immediately recognizable. But through a series of events they come to recognize that Christ is truly present with them.
We are told that this encounter takes place on “the first day of the week,” which is Sunday. The two disciples are distraught over the death of Christ, and the mysterious fact that now His tomb seems to be empty. In consolation, Jesus begins to speak to them about the Sacred Scripture, and all the things written therein which reveal the Christ. Finally, when they reach Emmaus, they sit down at table for a meal. There we are told that “He took break, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him… He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”
This sequence of events should sound familiar to any Catholic. On Sundays we come together as disciples of Christ. We gather in a place where Christ is present with us, though not in a form that is immediately recognizable. We read and are taught from the Scriptures. And then our priest takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to us. We receive this, not as bread (which it would appear to be to our senses), but as the very Body of Christ. He has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread.
I speak, of course, of the Mass, which has been the central aspect of Christian life from the very beginning of the Church. Even the Risen Christ celebrated the Mass with His followers, as we see in today’s reading. And the reason why the Mass is so essential to our lives as Christians is that it is in the Mass that we, like those travelling to Emmaus, encounter Jesus Christ.
So why don’t people get excited about Mass attendance? I think one reason is that they (we) speak of “attending” Mass, like we would attend a sporting event, a play, or a movie. This suggests that we are going as spectators there to be entertained. I expect that a spectator witnessing what happened on the road to Emmaus would not have seen anything all that interesting; three men walking together and talking, and then sharing a simple meal. Nothing exiting about that.
It used to be that people did not speak of “attending” Mass, but rather of “assisting” at Mass. I suggest we make an effort to bring this practice back. By saying we assist at Mass, it suggests an active participation. All of us there at Mass are assisting in the celebration of the liturgy through our prayers. This prayerful participation is what makes us truly present, and so we become more aware of Christ present to us. Rather than spectators watching the encounter of the disciples with Jesus, we become one of the disciples whose hearts are burning as we hear the words of Christ.
The Second Vatican Council calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). This means that the Eucharist is both the beginning and the end of what we are about as Christians. It plumbs the depths of theology and ascends to the greatest heights of holiness. The Eucharist is the beginning and the end, — like Christ, for it is Christ. “By the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all… the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith” (CCC 1326-7).
When we think of everything that we do, or desire to do, as Christians, it all flows from our participation in the Eucharist. Our charitable deeds, helping those in need, our kindnesses and mercies; our prayers and petitions, our supplications; our evangelization and outreach; these are not things we do in addition to the Mass, but things we do because of what (and Who) we receive in the Mass. The Mass is not something that developed as part of the life of the Church. The life of the Church developed because of the Mass.
The very first Christians, we read in the New Testament, “devoted themselves to the apostles’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In the year 155 AD, St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor of Rome, Antoninus, explaining what Christians do.
On the day called Sunday, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles [New Testament] and the writings of the prophets [Old Testament] are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over these gathered [the priest] admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things [the homily]…
…then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks [in Greek: eucharistian] that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.
[From earlier in the same letter.] This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the one who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with he bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ has commanded [in a state of grace; not guilty of mortal sin]. We do not receive these as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation. Likewise we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word — and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed — is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh. [qtd. from CCC 1345 and The Mass of the Early Christians by Mike Aquilina]
This liturgy that St. Justin describes in the middle of the second century is the same liturgy described by St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letters around 107 AD; it is the same as that described in the Didache, a document sometimes called The Teachings of the Apostles, written in the late first century. It is the same as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10-11. It is the same as Christ demonstrates Himself in today’s gospel. And it is the same as the Mass we are blessed to be able to celebrate today, what the Catechism calls “the Mass of all ages.”
This is the good news. Just like the disciples in today’s gospel, we are still today able to walk with Christ. He may not be immediately recognizable to us, but He is here nonetheless. We can recognize Him in the breaking of the bread. So don’t walk, but run to Mass. And may we always approach the great gift Christ has given us, of His own flesh and blood, with a thankful heart — which is to say, a Eucharistic heart.
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374 | POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723