The Road to Emmaus and Why Catholics Should Miss Mass in the Age of Coronavirus Without Feeling Guilty
The Catholic faithful are clamoring to return to closed churches. We want to spend time with fellow parishioners and hear sacred scripture proclaimed in the liturgy of the Word. But the primary desire is to receive communion in the liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council has described the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Catholic faith, and most Catholics take that teaching seriously. At the same time, much catechesis has overemphasized receiving the Eucharist as a singular act disconnected from a wider life of faith.
The Church teaches that Eucharist is not an deed unto itself. It is not an act of worship separated from the rest of life of the Church. As the Source of Catholic faith, the real presence of Christ flows from the Eucharist into the life of the Church.
The Vatican II document Presbyterorum Ordonis (5) states,
“For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch and Living Bread, by the action of the Holy Spirit through his very flesh vital and vitalizing, giving life to men who are thus invited and encouraged to offer themselves, their labors and all created things, together with him.”
Because of its privileged place among the sacraments, the Eucharist transforms the believing community into the real presence of Christ in the world by all our actions united to him.
Sacred scripture shows this happening in the Gospel According to St. Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles. Both books composed by St. Luke demonstrate that the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ in the transubstantiated bread and wine that transforms the believing community into the real presence of the body of Christ.
The Road to Emmaus
Following the resurrection of Christ, two disciples left Jerusalem and headed toward the village of Emmaus. On their way, they encountered Jesus, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).
They told the concealed Christ that they had hoped Jesus would be the Messiah; however, their hopes were dashed when he had been crucified. They went on to say that some women in their group had claimed that they had encountered angels at Jesus’ empty tomb who announced that he had been raised from the dead.
The hidden Jesus chided the two disciples for being slow to believe the scriptures. He then “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
When they reached their destination, Jesus (still hidden from their understanding) agreed to stay with them. At the house, they sat at table and relived an experience that they had undergone a few days earlier: Mystical Supper.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30).
The familiar Eucharistic formula first appeared in Luke 22:19. “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them.”
At Emmaus, Jesus broke bread as they did at the Last Supper, but something unusual happened when they finished at Emmaus. After the disciples received the Eucharistic meal, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (24:31).
Echoing the event in the Garden of Eden, the eyes of these two were opened. However, unlike Adam and Eve, these two disciples underwent a transformative, life-giving experience: They recognized the Lord.
Curiously, he disappeared, and the disciples exclaimed, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (24:32).
Why did Christ vanish? Orthodox theologian Dr. John Behr suggests that after participating in the breaking of bread, Christ vanished outwardly as he was made known inwardly. The one who had been hidden from the disciple’s eyes “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). The Eucharistic encounter transformed the disciples so that Christ became known by, in, and through them. The disciples became incarnated into becoming the real presence of the body of Christ.
Luke 24 is a liturgical event that begins with a procession, moves to a liturgy of the word, and is followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist. Importantly, it does not end with the breaking of the bread. Even in today’s liturgy the Mass concludes with a final blessing and reminder, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”
In receiving the body of Christ, the disciples became the body of Christ. They then performed the Eucharistic action of being the body of Christ as St. Luke demonstrates throughout the Acts of the Apostles.
The Acts of the Apostles
The book opens with the Ascension of Christ. For fifty days, Christ “disappeared” until the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when the Church received the sacrament of baptism. Immediately thereafter, the Eucharist became an integral element of the believers’ communal life.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
Apostolic instruction, shared life, Eucharist, and praying characterized the Church’s activity throughout the book of Acts. As the book unfolds, the early believers met regularly, but they did not gather simply to receive the Eucharist in an isolated event. Receiving the Eucharist itself created a Eucharistic life that prompted the Church to engage in works of mercy.
In Acts 3, Peter and John preached and performed a miraculous healing. Subsequently, they were arrested and tried in chapter 4. After their trial, the apostles returned to the gathering of the church so that they could all pray together, but there is no mention of the Eucharist. At the end of Acts 4, members of the Church sold their individual goods and help the poor.
“Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” (Acts 4:34–35)
As Acts 5 unfolds, the apostles healed the sick, and the Church continued the proclamation of the Gospel. “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42)
When Acts 6 opens, the Church was overwhelmed with demands for serving the needs of the widows among them. The apostles suggested:
“pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:3–4)
Throughout the early life of the Church as told in the Acts of the Apostles, there are few specific mentions of believers partaking of the Eucharist. That is not to suggest the Eucharist was unimportant to the believers. Just the opposite.
In following the pattern of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Christ was made known in the breaking of the bread. Shaped by the Eucharist, Jesus had “disappeared,” and the Church embodied Christ. The Eucharistic community lived the gospel as they incarnated the real presence of Christ.
As the pandemic stay-at-home orders continue, we anticipate the time when we can receive the Eucharist again. Of course, the Holy Mass continues each day in every diocese throughout the world. I think this is often forgotten in the rhetoric relate to reopening churches.
Nevertheless, the early believers in Luke and Acts show us that Christ is present not only in the Eucharist but also in the Church. How could Christ not be present in his own body?
As the body of Christ, today’s Church continues to be the Eucharistic community — the community that is the sacrament of the Lord’s presence. Therefore, the body of Christ performs self-sacrificial works of mercy today just the early Church did.
Because of the global pandemic, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy have become more crucial than ever. Consoling those who are mourning, encouraging people who are afraid, and offering solid wisdom can calm shaky hearts and minds. Caring for the sick, burying the dead, and feeding the hungry are imperative these days. Giving alms directly or through charitable organizations is essential to help the millions of people who have become unemployed.
One of the most vital works of mercy is not spreading the virus, and that means abiding by the self-quarantines even to the point of temporarily canceling liturgies until people can attend safely.
We make this sacrifice faithfully knowing that the real presence of Christ is not limited to the sanctified bread and wine. Christ has “disappeared” into the Church whenever his real presence resides in the life of the disciples.
So instead of demanding that churches reopen in defiance of public health orders, the Church should lead the way in self-sacrifice for the good of the world since the Church embodies the crucified and risen Christ.
We all want to receive communion, but it is more important that we commune with Christ by giving up our desires, rights, and privileges for the life of the world. When the Church becomes the living bread broken, Christ becomes known in the world. Through this paradoxical encounter, people’s hearts will burn within them. The mystery of the Church is the mystery of the Eucharist, and for the time being we incarnate this through the mystery of staying home in an act of supreme love.