Mass on the Move: The Hidden Mass on the Road to Emmaus
By Msgr. Charles Pope
The Gospel of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13ff) does more than present a resurrection appearance. It also presents the Mass in seminal form as I will show. In doing this Luke and the Holy Spirit teach us that the Mass is the essential and most vivid way that we encounter Christ now. The two disciples also learn this lesson for as soon as they recognize Christ “in the breaking of the bread” he vanishes from their earthly eyes. In effect Christ teaches them they will no longer see him in an earthly way but now they will see him with the eyes of faith in the Eucharist, the liturgy and, by extension, in all the sacraments.
So for us to who to encounter the risen Lord Jesus, this Gospel teaches us that the Mass is the most perfect way and place we will encounter him. Let’s examine this resurrection appearance and see it for what it is, a Mass.
- 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). This is what we do as the preliminary act of every Mass. We who are pilgrims on a journey come together on our journey. 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 recognize Jesus yet. Now for us who gather at Mass it is essential to acknowledge by faith that when we gather together, the Lord Jesus is with us, for Scripture says, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). it is a true fact that for many of us too, Jesus 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 thereby he announces the presence of Christ among us 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.
- 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. The text describes them as “downcast” (24:17). Thus the Lord engages them is 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. We too often enter the presence of God looking downcast and carrying many burdens and sins. We too like these two 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. And thus again we see in this story about two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Mass that is so familiar to us.
- The 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 but he interprets it for them. Hence the Word is not only read, there is also a homily, an explanation and application of the Scripture to the struggles these men have. The homily was 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. Whatever 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 a true fact that the Lord works through a weak human agent (the priest or deacon) but God can write straight with crooked lines and 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 moment. After the homily we usually make prayers and requests of Christ. And so it is that we also see these two disciples 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 those we love so that we will not be alone in the dark. In our darkest hours, be to us a light O Lord that never fades away. Yes, this whole brief journey of Jesus and the disciples is surely familiar to us who attend the Catholic Mass!
- The 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, the Mass to be sure. 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. The words of 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). First 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? The liturgy and the sacraments are not mere rituals, they are encounters with Jesus Christ, and though 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 he vanishes from their sight teaches us that he is no longer seen by the eyes of the flesh, but by the eyes of faith and 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 it’s pinnacle, for these two disciples and for us.
- Dismissal Rite- Not able to contain their joy or hide their experience the two disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell their brethren what had happened and how they encountered Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They want to, 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 haver nice day.” What it DOES mean is: “Go now 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.” Perhaps you can see 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). How about us. Does our Mass finish as well, as enthusiastically?
So there it is, the Mass on the Move. For a Catholic this resurrection account is unmistakably a Mass. True it is in seminal form, but all the elements are there. The teaching is clear, the risen Lord Jesus is now to be found in the Liturgy and the Sacraments. It is for us only to have our eyes opened and to recognize him there.