The Road to Emmaus and the Mass

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday Jesus appeared to two disciples walking to the city of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They did not recognize Him, but spoke of their discouragement about His death. Jesus explained the preparation for this in the Scriptures, and then was invited to dinner as they reached the town. At dinner He performed the blessing and then disappeared. This has been one of my favorite Resurrection appearances since hearing it explained at one of our Diocesan Emmaus Days retreats (the retreat name comes from this passage). It helped me to understand the structure of the Mass, and how to find God in it.

The Mass has two principal parts—the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture readings, preaching) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the consecration and distribution of the Body and Blood). We see both of them echoed in the appearance.

Jesus first spends time speaking with the two disciples about the full meaning of the Scriptures. He shows the way that the Old Testament prepares the way for His work, and how to see God’s plan through it all. The disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” This is what we seek today when we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word: that the Lord may open the Scriptures to us and set our hearts afire!

However, at this point the disciples had still not recognized Jesus. It was getting late, and so they invited Him to dinner. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” These are not random actions they describe—taking the bread, blessing, breaking, giving. These are the actions Jesus had done at the Last Supper, when He said, “this is my Body… this is my Blood.” They hearken back as well to the feeding of the multitude, after which He explained “my flesh is true food and my blood true drink… unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (see John chapter 6). In fact, it appears that Jesus chose to celebrate His “first supper” after the Resurrection in the same way as the Last Supper! It is in this moment that they finally recognize Him, but then He disappears from their sight. Why? I think the Catholic answer is very profound: because He remains present now under the appearance of the bread and wine. His True Presence does not leave, merely manifests in the new way that He will remain with us until the end of days.

So, when we celebrate Mass, we commemorate not just the Last Supper but also this “first” Supper. Jesus is not dead in the Mass, but alive. When we receive Communion we don’t encounter an inactive body but a living Person. Normal food is broken down and transformed into part of our body when it is consumed. This is different in the case of the Eucharist. Because Jesus is alive, what happens is that bit by bit our old self is broken down and transformed into Who we receive: Christ. Alleluia!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

How do you pray with the Scriptures?

The Bible is not an ordinary book. First, it is in fact a collection of many different books. Only the modern printing press allows us to conceive of them as one volume! However, these books are bound together, we believe, by a common Author working through various human authors. Therefore, it is more than just a historical record of information. The Scriptures offer us a chance to come into conversation with the God that inspired them, which we call prayer.

I first approached reading the Scriptures primarily from the perspective of “quantity.” When I sat down to read, I was looking to see how much information I could get through. This is how I read most other books. I knew people did pray with the Scriptures but wasn’t really sure how. For me, the primary change was realizing that I should have been focusing on “quality” of reading. The goal of prayer isn’t to read over as many words as possible. It is to discover riches that are hidden and to begin to savor them. This approach is classically called lectio divina (“divine reading”). It focuses on entering into the texts as a treasure house for prayer. A theological study of the Bible supports and nourishes this reading, but it stands distinct.

Divine reading begins by selecting a text. Again, the goal isn’t quantity, but quality. We read over a section and continue until we come across an idea or phrase that strikes us. It is important to be watchful, because we do not know when the Lord will speak! We begin to meditate and reflect on this. Maybe we imagine ourselves in the scene. We think of the way that it gives insight into our past, present, or future. We think of its implications for us. But, prayer can’t remain at only the level of personal consideration. When we turn this reflection into a conversation with God, it becomes prayer. Maybe the meditation inspires us to expression of praise or thanksgiving; maybe petition and intercession; or, maybe even to express sorrow for some event. We speak to God about our meditation on this passage. Then, we listen for a response. Contemplation refers to this phase of God’s response to our prayer. It is important to have some times of silence. Our goal isn’t just to fill up the space with our own thoughts and words. We need room for God to work. There is a need to be open if God is going to direct our prayer somewhere, and not to try to force the conclusion we want. If we find our attention wavering, we can return to the earlier steps and move back and forth. This cycle of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating forms the structure of lectio divina. It may happen over the course of five minutes, or an hour. In this, the riches of the Scriptures can be opened to us in a new way.

I’d like to end with one final note. While these four steps form the classic structure, there is an implicit fifth step that is contained in the practice. True prayer gives us inspiration for action. It doesn’t always mean starting some new routine—perhaps it might just be encouragement to persevere in our spiritual life. But, at the end of the time of prayer, it is very helpful to make a practical resolution. I think a lot of problems can come up if we ignore this. Often it leads to a separation between prayer and life. Going to prayer might become something completely divorced from everyday life, which is not healthy. Instead, I encourage you to end your prayer by asking God for a practical resolution. This resolution could be to continue a practice, change a habit, take a particular action, or even seek the answer to a question that arose during the time. It might mean some study or speaking to a spiritual director. In this final step, though, we can let the graces given through prayer take root and bear fruit.

A great resource if you would like to learn more about this form of prayer is Praying Scripture for a Change by Tim Gray. I highly recommend it.

God bless!