It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of St Luke’s telling of what happened on the road to and after the arrival of Jesus, Cleopas, and the unnamed disciple in Emmaus. As with the risen Lord’s repeated appearances to the disciples while they were hiding in the aftermath of his death, what St Luke wrote down and handed on is about how Jesus continues to accompany us on the way. You see my friends, Christ’s resurrection from the dead is not merely a past event, something that happened a long time ago in a land far away. Even if we believe Jesus rose from the dead as a matter of fact, reducing his resurrection merely to an historical event is to render it meaningless and perhaps ineffective in our lives. Christ’s resurrection is an on-going reality. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to have some experience of this reality.
How do we experience the on-going reality of Christ’s resurrection? The theological answer is, “By the power of the Holy Spirit.” This answer can be disheartening because too often we imagine that the Holy Spirit only works on a highly individual basis and only in fantastic, spectacular ways. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence in us and among us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the way the risen Lord remains present to us between his Ascension and his return in glory.
This is where our experience and that of the disciples in Emmaus converge: Jesus is made known to us in the breaking of bread. Our knowing him under the guise of bread and wine is, indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit. Each Eucharistic prayer includes what is called an epiclesis. Epiclesis is a Greek verb meaning “to call down.” In addition to making the appropriate physical gestures, during the epiclesis, the priest says something like: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is by receiving our Lord in the form of bread and wine that he accompanies us along the road of life, he is with us on the way. It is our sharing of the bread that makes us companions. The origin of our word “companion” comes from Latin: cum = “with” and pané = “bread.” Together cum + pané = “companion.” Thus, your companions are the ones whom you share bread. We call the ability to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine faith. Being a gift from God, faith is also brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our frequent, full, active, and conscious participation in the Eucharist is what it means concretely, existentially, to experience Christ’s resurrection.
In Baptism we died, were buried and rose with Christ. In Confirmation, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit to bear witness to our new life Christ, empowered to give witness by the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe of the Lord- not speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, nor wearing a sandwich board that reads “Repent! The end is near” while standing on a street corner.
In this regard, it is good to point out that the Sacrament of Penance, which was the first gift given by the risen Christ to his Church, as we heard in last week’s Gospel on Divine Mercy Sunday, is an extension of Baptism that recognizes our post-baptismal tendency to sin. Going to confession, where we also have a direct, personal encounter with Christ in the person of the priest, is also a dramatic way of experiencing the on-going event of Christ’s resurrection in a manner that is not just similar to, but identical to, the way Cleopas and his companion encountered Jesus risen from the dead, which is to say, sacramentally. As the disciples’ experience shows us, to encounter Jesus this way is not somehow less real, but what we might call really real.
Right now, as we celebrate this Mass, we are participating in what is intended to be for us a direct and life-changing encounter with our Risen Lord. In each Eucharistic celebration, Christ is really present in the gathering of the baptized, in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of the Scriptures (perhaps even in the homily), and in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine.
Like Cleopas and his companion, discouragement is not necessarily a barrier to encountering Christ. Life can be and sometimes is disappointing, even for Christ’s disciples. It is pretty clear that the two disciples were expressing their disappointment about had happened to each other as they walked the dusty road to Emmaus. They had cast their lot with Jesus only to see their expectations dashed with his arrest, trials, torture, death, and burial. Their hopes were nailed to the cross, where they seem to have died. Oh sure, they had heard about the empty tomb and a had listened to a few women, whose testimony was not to be trusted, say they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, but as far as they were concerned the gig was up.
Life is disappointing because we all have expectations. Our expectations are nothing except our hopes and wishes concerning when and how we want our desires to be realized. Desire is what makes us human. As the great Dominican saint, St Catherine of Sienna, whose liturgical memorial we observed yesterday, wrote in one of her letters: “There is nothing we can desire or want that we do not find in God.” A corollary to this is G.K. Chesterton’s observation that every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is seeking God. What can prevent us from having an encounter with the risen and living Lord is our lack of desire to see him. We may not desire to encounter him because we prefer our own desires, not realizing or believing what the old hymn tells us: Jesus is the joy of all our desiring, the fulfillment of our deepest longings.
We sometimes lack desire because we are content with our lives, happy with how things are, or least not terribly unhappy. We suspect, perhaps even fear, that encountering the risen Lord will shake things up, like it no doubt did for his first post-resurrection disciples. Think about it- after recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread, Cleopas and his companion, seemingly without hesitation or bothering to get a good night’s sleep, traveled the seven miles back to Jerusalem to bear witness that Christ is risen.
It was the change wrought by their encounter with the risen Christ that empowered the first Christians, a non-descript and quite unlikely bunch, to change the world. Being changed is just another way to say “converted.” If we are to be agents of change, protagonists, witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, we must first be changed. May this Eucharist, then, be for us a life-changing encounter with Christ risen and alive, may he come to dwell in us by the power of his Holy Spirit so that, when we are sent forth at the end of Mass, like Cleopas and his companion, we might be eager to bear witness, declaring - Christ is risen. Alleluia!