At this time of year our Sunday Gospel Readings all look back to those days of great hope and expectation between our Lord’s Resurrection and his Ascension when events took place which are seen as the origin of much of what we would now call the sacramental system, the means by which Jesus would continue to touch our lives: I shall be reflecting more on the Sacraments over the next few weeks, especially at Whitsun and Corpus Christi: but for a start look at these words in Gospel for 3rd Sunday of Easter: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”
This story of Our Lord’s appearance to his disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of the best known and best loved short stories within the bible. In a sense the whole of the Easter message is there: the doubts, the revelation and the joy of recognition that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and had appeared to the Apostles.
And most striking of all is the context in which the recognition took place: the breaking of bread. Theologians are, of course, right to insist that this was not an early example of the Mass. For a start there was no purpose in a memorial of Jesus before his departure from amongst them at his Ascension; but it reminds us of the importance which was then attached to the formality of breaking bread together as a symbol of unity and fellowship and why the breaking of bread – an already established custom – was chosen as the ceremony onto which Jesus would graft that extra significance of his own sacramental presence among us.
I think we are sometimes inclined to forget that the underlying importance of the Easter mysteries, by which we include the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is not that it was the occasion of Christ leaving us but of his coming to us for all time.
Some people do have enormous difficulties about the idea of Christ’s real presence among us in the Eucharist, but the difficulties often arise out of their failure to raise their minds above the level of physical appearance and appreciate the sacramental presence of Jesus who said “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world”. Logically it requires no great leap of faith from believing that God is everywhere to believing that his presence can be most particularly focused in the Eucharistic Sacrament.
Jesus gave himself for all time to his Church, not by way of physical appearance such as was his presence on earth, nor by way of a mere representation, such as a statue or an idol in the tradition of the pagans, but in a new and unique form of presence: sacramental presence, giving reality to the sign or appearance of bread and wine: food which we absorb into ourselves in perfect union, food which is the basis of a meal, a meal which is our basic social event of the day: the family meal or, as the Jews called it, “the breaking or sharing of bread”.
To understand this mystery you do not have to be particularly brilliant, but it does help if you are the sort of person who appreciates poetry. Some things in life are simply too deep to express in ordinary words and mankind has in all ages used poetry or music or art to reach beyond provable facts to the realm of faith; and faith is what religion is all about: striving to deepen our conviction that there is something beyond ourselves, our world, our galaxy, our universe. That something is our Creator-God: he made us and we belong to him: we worship him and he gives himself back to us to be our spiritual food and drink.
These sentiments are most wonderfully expressed in the words of the byzantine liturgy of St Mark whose prayer I quote by way of conclusion:
O God, Father of Light, Source of Life, Author of Grace and Founder of the Worlds, instiller of all holiness and teacher of pure prayer: you have raised us from the depths into light, from slavery into freedom and have scattered darkness by the presence of your only begotten Son.
Enlighten the eyes of our understanding that we may partake of this immortal and heavenly food; and sanctify us through and through in body soul and spirit.