14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (4)

The “Road to Emmaus” Icon by Sister Marie Paul OSB of the Mount of Olives Monastery, Jerusalem (1990), commissioned by the Canadian theologian Father Thomas Rosica

Patrick Comerford

Meal 7: The Meal on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35)

By a huge margin, the Bible story quoted most often during the first week of the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible has been the story of disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, according to Father Thomas Rosica, who briefed English-speaking journalists on the synod speeches.

It is said the story kept coming up at the synod in Rome last October because so many bishops and other synod members saw it as the perfect example of what the Church must do with the Scriptures: discuss them with people, explain them and let them lead people to recognise Jesus.

The Superior General of the Salesians, Father Pasual Chavez Villanueva, told the synod that the story gives precise instructions for how to evangelise the young, emphasising that it is Jesus who evangelises through his word and that evangelisation takes place by walking alongside people, listening to their sorrows, and then giving them a word of hope and a community in which to live it.

Father Chavez told the synod that today’s young people definitely share with the disciples “the frustration of their dreams, the tiredness of their faith and being disenchanted with discipleship.” They “need a church that walks alongside them where they are.”

The story of Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus is a very rich one and one that offers a model for Christian life and mission.

After seeing all their hopes shattered on Good Friday, two disciples – Cleopas and another unnamed disciple – head out of Jerusalem, and are walking and talking on the road as their make their way together.

Emmaus was about seven miles from Jerusalem, so it would have taken them two hours, perhaps, to get there, maybe more if they were my age.

Somewhere along the way, they are joined by a third person, “but their eyes were kept from recognising him” (verse 16, NRSV), or to be more precise, as the Greek text says, “but their eyes were being held so that they did not recognise him.”

They cannot make sense of what has happened over the last few days, and they cannot make sense of the questions their new companion puts to them. When Jesus asks them a straight question, they look sad and downcast.

I get the feeling that Cleopas is a bit cynical, treating Jesus as one of the visitors to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, and asking him if he really does not know what has happened in the city. In his cynicism, Cleopas almost sounds like Simon the Pharisee asking his visitor Jesus whether he really knows who the woman with the alabaster jar is.

Like Simon, Cleopas and his friend thought Jesus was a Prophet. But now they doubt it. And the sort of Messiah they hoped for was not the sort of Messiah Jesus had been preparing them for, was he?

And they have heard the report of the women visiting the tomb, and finding it empty. Hearing is not believing. Seeing is not believing. And believing is not the same as faith.

When I find myself disagreeing fundamentally with people, I wonder do I listen even half as patiently as Jesus did with these two.

There are no interruptions, no corrections, no upbraidings. Jesus listens passively and patiently, like all good counsellors should, and only speaks when they have finished speaking.

And then, despite their cynicism, despite their failure to understand, despite their lack of faith, these two disciples do something extraordinary. They press the stranger in their company not to continue on his journey. It’s late in the evening, and they invite him to join them.

On re-reading this story I found myself comparing their action and their hospitality with the Good Samaritan who comes across the bruised and battered stranger on the side of the road, and offers him healing hospitality, offering to pay for his meals and his accommodation in the inn.

These two have also come across a bruised and battered stranger on the road, and they offer him healing hospitality, offering him a meal and accommodation in the inn.

Jesus had once imposed himself on Zacchaeus and presumes on his hospitality. Now Cleopas and his companion insist on imposing Jesus on their hospitality. The guest becomes the host and the host becomes the guest, once again.

He goes into stay with them. And it’s not just a matter of finding him a room for the night. They dine together.

And so, in a manner that is typical of the way Saint Luke tells his stories, the story of the road to Emmaus ends with a meal with Jesus.

And at the meal – as he did with the multitude on the hillside, and with the disciples in the Upper Room – Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to those at the table with him (verse 30).

Their time in the wilderness is over, the Lenten preparation has been completed. The one who has received their hospitality now invites them to receive the hospitality of God, and to join him at the Heavenly Banquet.

Their journey continues. Our journey continues. Christ is not physically present with us on the road. But we recognise him in the breaking of the bread. And we, being many, become one body, for we all share in the one bread.

Meal 8: The Heavenly Banquet

An Orthodox icon of the Mystical Supper

Our final meal with Jesus is the climax to all the meals with Jesus.

But before we move into the full meaning of our Easter Communion, I just want you to step back for a few moments, and think about Christmas.

Christmas is a much messier and more humbling story than we allow it to be with all our tinsel and decorations and carolling.

When Mary and Joseph are refused hospitality in Bethlehem, they are not only refused a bed for the night, but they are also left without anywhere to eat.

One of their earliest experiences as a family for Mary and Joseph is the refusal or denial of hospitality … being denied both bed and board.

To refuse someone a place at your table is, of course, to deny them a place in your family. Yet, it is family duty – being of the House of David – that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the first place.

I wonder what all those family meals were like for the growing Jesus. Did Joseph tell him to eat up his vegetables? Did Mary tell him he couldn’t go out to play until he had finished eating?

As a pious religious Jewish family, they would have placed a high priority on the Friday evening meal, the Sabbath eve meal that has its own beautiful domestic liturgy in the home at the blessing of the wine and of the bread.

And then there was the usual, year-by-year round of religious meals, especially the Passover, when the saving events of the past were made real in the present, and there was hope for the future. As the child in the family, Jesus would have asked why this night was different to all other nights. What made it special?

And, of course, there would have been the usual meals associated with the cycle and rhythm of life, for bar mitzvahs, for weddings, and the meals brought to family members, friends and neighbours as they mourned loved ones at shiva.

Just as he is calling his disciples, Jesus joins his family and friends for one of these types of meals, as we know from the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2: 1-12), the first of the signs in the Fourth Gospel.

At a wedding, new families are formed: there are new fathers-in-law, new mothers-in-law, new brothers and sisters-in-law. Eventually they become new grandparents, new uncles and aunts, when there are new grandchildren, new nieces and nephews.

And when the wedding is over in Cana, Jesus and his mother, and his brothers and his disciples return to Capernaum, where they spend a few days. No doubt, there is some bonding to be done, for there are new relationships, new ties of kinship.

But there are also hints at the wedding in Cana of the promise of the Resurrection and of the Heavenly Banquet. Have you noticed how the wedding takes place on the third day (John 2: 1), and just before the Passover (John 2: 13)?

It was a common in Jewish thinking and imagery at the time to speak of wedding banquets as a foretaste of God’s heavenly promises. The Mishnah says: “This world is like a lobby before the World-To-Come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

But then, so often throughout the Gospels, we find that great meals and wedding banquets provide a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet.

We are invited; but are we ready, are we prepared, to be wedding guests? (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24). Think of the Ten Bridesmaids, and how the foolish ones are not ready when the bridegroom arrives (Matthew 25: 1-13).

On the other hand, plush dining can also tell us a lot about what the Kingdom of God is not like. Consider the story of the rich man, who dined sumptuously and alone, and left the starving, sick and dying Lazarus to go hungry at his gate (Luke 16: 19-31). This is not what the Kingdom of God is like, as Dives finds out. But he finds out when it’s too late for his own good.

The great Biblical meals celebrate not only what was, as with the Passover, but what is, in the present, and what is to come, as with the wedding banquets – new promises, new covenants, new families, new expectations, new hopes.

At the Resurrection, Christ breaks down all the barriers of time and space. And so every Eucharist we celebrate today, in the present, reaches back in time into the past and makes real today the promises and hopes for liberation from slavery and sin. And the Eucharist of today also reaches out into the future and is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet which is the completion of the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth, the final glory of God’s creation (see Revelation 2: 17; 19: 9-10; 22: 17).

So often, we think first in terms of the Church and then in terms of the Sacraments. We think in terms of my church and its rules about who can be baptised and who can be invited to share in the Eucharist.

But we must ask again: Does the Church make the Sacraments? Or do the Sacraments make the Church?

The Church does not own the Sacraments. They are Christ’s invitation to us. There can only be one Baptism, for we are baptised into the Body of Christ, and there is only one Body of Christ.

And there can be only one Eucharist, for we being many are one body, and we all share in the one bread. In sharing in the Eucharist we are most visibly the Body of Christ … and Christ has only one body.

And the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. And when we find ourselves invited to it, we will find that there is only one Heavenly Banquet. I hope we will not be surprised like Simon to find who Jesus keeps company with at the table.

The Lent I have invited you to share with me today is a Lent that is an appropriate mixture of fasting and feasting. For our feasting and our fasting can never be separated from our hopes for the Heavenly Banquet and for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The Prophet Isaiah challenges us about which fasts we choose and tells us (Isaiah 58: 6-9):

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

An icon of the Mystical Supper by the Orthodox priest, Father Luke (Rolland) Dingman, of Brookdale, California

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the fourth of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009

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