The Breaking of the Bread

Third Sunday of Easter Scripture Readings

As I hope you’ve noticed by now, gospel stories are seldom about what the authors are describing. They’re prophetic in the sense that they always have deeper meanings. That’s why Scriptural literalists tend to stick to the letters of Saint Paul or even the Hebrew Scriptures—what we call the “Old Testament”—in their preaching. It takes a spiritual mind and a poetic heart to grasp the deeper meanings of the gospels. We’re going to examine the gospel of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus at several different levels.

As usual, we want to start our meditation with consideration of its historical underpinnings. Luke locates this event on the Sunday after the Passover when Jesus died. It was on the road heading west from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. The two disciples evidently lived in Emmaus and had come to Jerusalem for the feast along with hordes of Jewish pilgrims from all over the Middle East. They couldn’t return home right away but had to wait until the first day of the week because they were limited by the Law of Moses to traveling no more than about half a mile on foot on the Sabbath. Therefore, they stayed in Jerusalem not only for the crucifixion but also the morning of the Resurrection when they heard about the empty tomb.

Who were these disciples? Only one is named, and that is Cleopas. The historian Eusebius writes that it was reported to him that Cleopas was the brother of Joseph of Nazareth, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. That would make Cleopas Jesus’s uncle. The only other place where the man is mentioned is in John’s gospel, where one of the women who stood by the cross of Jesus was “Mary, the wife of Cleopas” [John 19:25]. Assuming that Luke was referring to the same man, that would make this Mary Jesus’s mother’s sister-in-law and therefore Jesus’s aunt. That would certainly explain why Cleopas was so familiar with the events in Jerusalem that weekend. Was it possible that Mary, the wife of Cleopas, was traveling with him on the road to Emmaus? It would seem probable to me, even though she’s not mentioned. It wasn’t uncommon for writers at the time to mention only the men. Or, just maybe, the other traveler with Cleopas might have been Mary, his wife, herself.

This would also make sense of why they were so deeply caught up in their conversation “about all the things that had occurred” in Jerusalem over the previous few days. The travelers were identified as “two of Jesus’s disciples.” If our analysis is correct, they were somewhat more than disciples. They were members of Jesus’s extended family and, no doubt, eyewitnesses of the crucifixion and perhaps even witnesses to the empty tomb. Although not leaders of the band of disciples nor members of Jesus’s inner circle, they were obviously intimately acquainted with them, since on their return to Jerusalem they were immediately let into the company of the Apostles who were in a locked room out of fear of the Jewish authorities. It’s significant that Jesus appeared to them, even though they were only run-of-the-mill disciples.

Now, let’s consider what happened during their seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus—a trip that would take them perhaps two-and-a-half hours. They were talking about what happened. A litter farther on in the passage, we’re told that they had considered Jesus to be a prophet and they were “hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel”—from the Romans(?). Evidently, at least at first, they didn’t comprehend the nature of Jesus’s Messiahship. The gospel says that Jesus himself walked with them and explained the entire Hebrew Scriptures to them as they went along. That was quite an accomplishment in just two-and-a-half hours. And you think my homilies are long! By the time they reached their village, it was late afternoon and, as proper Middle Eastern gentlemen would do, they insisted that Jesus come and share a meal with them. It was only in the breaking of the bread that they finally recognized Jesus.

I think we’re now ready to get to the heart of this story. As so often happens when we’re searching for meaning, we have to ask, “Did what Luke describes actually happen?” And as so often happens, the answer is, “It doesn’t really matter.” You see, the Emmaus story is fundamentally a death-and-resurrection story. It’s a baptismal story, and the disciples on the road are neophytes. The disciples represent any and all followers of Christ. They’ve experienced loss. They’ve experienced disappointment. They’ve experienced despair. All the things they thought would give meaning to their lives were suddenly snatched away by injustice and violence.

Yet, they didn’t give up their faith. They remained disciples. Slowly, as they meditated on the Scriptures, they began to get a new perspective on their lives and the events that had shaped them. The Spirit of Christ—the Holy Spirit—opened their hearts to see and understand things from a new, spiritual perspective. They learned that their presuppositions about life and God and salvation were wrong. Their understanding was too shallow, too limited, and too materialistic. God had escaped the box they’d put him in.

The disciples on the road are not just those disciples. They are you and me. It takes a lifetime on the road to fully appreciate our baptism—that Easter sacrament. It takes a lot of living to appreciate what it means to die with Christ and to rise with Christ. It’s a struggle to give up the futility of our self-will and accept surrender to the will of God not as a defeat but as a victory. Fortunately, we have the Spirit of the unseen Christ walking along the way with us and explaining it all to us if we would only listen. As our spiritual understanding grows, our hearts burn within us just like the disciples in the gospel story.

The culmination of the story is in the breaking of the bread. The disciples on the road—our avatars in the Scriptures—are living a eucharistic liturgy. It starts out with the unseen, unrecognized Jesus, our companion as we experience and struggle to understand the Scriptures. Then we move to the breaking of the bread, the moment when the anonymous Jesus becomes recognizable as the bread taken, blessed, broken, and given. We may think of the Eucharist as bread and wine, but it’s so much more. It’s the unleavened bread and blessing cup of the Passover from slavery to freedom, from defeat to victory, from death to life. It’s life-sustaining food that we share with one another. It’s the living body of Christ only because we are the living body of Christ—you and I. It’s in the breaking of this bread, in sharing the lifegiving nourishment of God’s grace and love with one another that Christ becomes manifest to us. We recognize him in one another by the breaking of this bread together.

There’s only one last element of this story left for us to consider. Once the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they became energized. They weren’t content to sit around at home saying to one another, “Oh, wow. Wasn’t that awesome?” They got up at once and returned to Jerusalem to tell the others that they had encountered the risen Christ. What about us? If our hearts burn within us as we meditate on the Scriptures and recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread together, what’s our reaction? How can we bring the good news of the Resurrection out to others? What’s our mission?

At the end of our liturgy, I say or sing, “The Mass is ended, go in peace.” As often happens, it’s a poor translation. The Latin dismissal is, “Ite, missa est.” It means, literally, “Go, it has been sent.” What has been sent? Eucharist has been sent. It has been sent in you. By your compassion and loving care, you bring the risen Christ to the world. You are the bread taken, blessed, broken, and given. You are Eucharist.

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