Last October, bishops from around the world gathered in Rome for a synod on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” You would think that a gathering with a title like that would focus on encouraging people to read the Bible.
And for the most part, that’s what the bishops did. But that’s not all they did. Throughout their time together, they spoke about how the words that we read in our Bibles and the words that are proclaimed at Mass are not meant for us just to study and learn. Rather, the purpose of the written word is to bring us face-to-face with Jesus, the living, eternal Word of God.
In this, our annual sacramental issue, we want to take a look at the interplay between the Scriptures and the Mass. We want to look at how the readings we hear at every Liturgy of the Word have the power to open heaven for us so that we meet Jesus and are transformed by his presence.
One of the best-loved Bible stories that illustrates this promise tells how two disciples met Jesus on Easter Sunday as they traveled from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Let’s explore this story more closely.
Out of Touch with the Power of the Gospel. The story begins with two disciples walking away from Jerusalem, downcast over Jesus’ death. All their hopes and dreams had died on Calvary when they saw their Master breathe his last. Overcome by sadness, they had forgotten how Jesus said that he would rise from the dead. They forgot all the miracles and healings—or at least they failed to connect these wonders with Jesus’ words about his Father’s desire to save his people. So when they saw Jesus on the cross, they no longer saw a holy man sacrificing himself for them. All they could see was a defeated man suffering the shame of a public execution.
This gives us an image of what can happen to us if we lose sight of Jesus’ words and let the world have the final say. While we may not feel the same sense of despair and powerlessness that these disciples felt, we can still walk into church on Sunday morning feeling worn down or preoccupied by the setbacks and challenges of life.
In these situations, it can be tempting to assume that this is a normal part of the Christian life. And to a certain extent, it is. None of us should expect to have worry-free lives. But we can go too far when we let the burdens of life cause us to doubt that we have a wonderful Savior in Jesus and a faithful Father. God wants us always to remember that Jesus is risen and is in heaven right now, interceding for us and pouring out grace to comfort and strengthen us. He wants us to know that he is a loving Father who cares for us.
It was into this environment of loss and dejection that Jesus came. Is it possible that the two disciples couldn’t recognize him because their vision had been so clouded by their sadness? Or maybe they had given up on the possibility that Jesus could rise from the dead, even though he promised he would. Whatever the case, their blindness to Jesus is a warning to us: As long as we think that there is no real power in the gospel story, we are just like these two. If, like them, we have fallen into the trap of underestimating Jesus’ powerful presence in our lives, we won’t be able to see him at work in the world or in our hearts. And that means that we will remain under a cloud, never knowing the freedom and joy that Jesus promised.
Hearts Aflame. Jesus opened the door of communication by asking the two travelers what they were talking about so intently. Then he opened his heart to them. “How foolish you are!” he cried. “How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” (Luke 24:25). Then he began to explain the gospel to them, pointing them to the future full of hope that he made possible by his suffering and death.
Beginning with Moses and winding through the whole story of Israel, Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples and showed them how they pointed to his own cross and resurrection. He didn’t just explain the story to them, intriguing their minds. He reached into the deepest part of them—the place reserved for the Holy Spirit—and stirred them with a burning desire for God.
When the disciples were seated at dinner, Jesus said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to them. That’s when it happened. They finally realized who he was. Everything they had seen and heard reached its climax. The desire that Jesus had kindled in their hearts burst into flame and became a deeply rooted faith that was unshakable. Now they knew: Jesus was risen! Sin had been defeated! Heaven was open to them!
From the Written Word to the Living Word. This is the miracle of Emmaus. And this is the miracle that Jesus wants to give to us every time we celebrate Mass. If we eagerly listen for his voice during the Liturgy of the Word and let his words stir our hearts, we will find ourselves closer to Jesus during the Liturgy of the Eucharist—the breaking of the Bread. Can we really be so confident about this? Yes, because Jesus is constantly at work, reaching out to us when we receive him.
Just think: If the two disciples did not believe after Jesus had spoken, the bread that he broke would have done little for them. They probably would not have recognized him. But because they listened intently and let their hearts begin to burn, the sky was the limit. As St. Paul wrote, “Faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17). Their faith in Jesus—which had been traumatized on Good Friday—was rekindled by the words Jesus spoke.
The same is true for us. If we open ourselves to the written word, Jesus will use those words to set a fire in our hearts. This is why it is such a good idea to spend time pondering the Scripture readings before Mass begins. We give the word time to sink in and are more open, when the liturgy begins, to hearing Jesus speaking to our hearts.
From the Living Word to Action. Now renewed in their faith and filled with joy, the two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened to them. They were so excited that they simply had to share the good news with their brothers and sisters. They had to tell them that Jesus was alive and that there was no need to worry any more. They wanted to lift them up and take away the same sense of loss and sadness that had weighed them down. Just as we are told to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” they took up their mission of service and evangelization, proclaiming the resurrection of the Lord.
This final scene in the story, including the disciples turning around and heading back to Jerusalem, tells us about the power of the word of God as we let it burn in our hearts. If we find ourselves with an ever-increasing desire to tell people about Jesus, if we find a desire in our hearts to stop going our own way and choose to follow Jesus, it’s a sign that the word of God has found a home in us and is moving us to serve the Lord.
It Is True! Through the Emmaus story, Luke is telling us that the word of God has the power to fill our hearts with faith. The more we ponder the word, the more we will come to believe in it. More importantly, Luke wants us to know that the words we read in our Bibles and the words we hear at Mass are invitations to a personal encounter with Jesus, both in the quiet of our hearts and in the breaking of the bread at the Eucharist.
So let’s ask the Holy Spirit to do in us what he did in these two disciples. Let’s ask him to stir our hearts and to reveal Jesus to us so that we can be sent out into the world as well. Everything Jesus said and everything he did had become a treasure of faith for the disciples. And it can happen for us as well, to the point where we echo their words: “The Lord has truly been raised!” (Luke 24:34).
May we all come to hear his voice in our hearts, meet him in the breaking of the bread, and then go and tell everyone that Christ is truly risen!