“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous disciples at the end of today’s Gospel reading.1 What things are they witnesses to? Initially and perhaps primarily, they are witnesses to his death. Even if not yet fully convinced, they are also witnessing his resurrection.2
After the risen Lord opens “their minds to understand the scriptures,” they are witnesses that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.3 This is something the risen and disguised Christ also makes clear to his two disciples as walks the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with them. Hence, it is not just very important, it is crucial for our faith and so for our witness to understand what the scriptures convey on a deep level.
It’s too bad that we often engage the scriptures superficially, if at all. Or, worse yet, we read the scriptures through the lens of our preconceptions, imposing on them a narrow field of meaning in attempt to reduce God to our measure. And so, instead of letting God’s word shape and form us, expand and broaden us, we attempt to keep revelation, which “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword,” within the safe boundaries we establish4 We read scripture instead of letting the scriptures read us. Let yourself be challenged, changed, converted. This is what it means to repent.
None of us saw Jesus die on the cross or have seen for ourselves the wounds in his hands and feet. None of us witnessed him eat the baked fish.5 Yet, we are convinced he rose. Your participation in this Mass is proof you believe. Would there be any reason to be here doing what we’re doing if Christ is not risen from the dead?
It is only because Jesus is risen that he can be present here, effecting what we Roman Catholics call his “Real Presence.” Just as we tend to reduce the Church’s apostolicity only to apostolic succession, we tend to reduce the risen Lord’s real presence to the consecrated bread and wine. It is because both apostolic succession and the understanding that by the power of the holy Spirit the bread and wine become for us Christ’s body and blood are necessary aspects of Catholic faith that we must not reduce them to one aspect.
According to the Second Vatican Council, the risen Christ’s real presence in the Mass happens in four distinct but interrelated ways. All of these together make the Mass what it is. First, Christ is present in the assembly, in the gathering of the baptized. The assembly, therefore, acts in persona corporis Christi, in the person of the body of Christ. Second, he is present in the person of the priest, who acts in persona Christi captis, in the person of Christ the head. The deacon acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the servant.6
When gathered around the altar, the Church constitutes what Saint Augustine called the totus Christus, the total or complete Christ. This is necessary for Christ to be really present in the proclamation of the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. No Church, no Christ.
As in the episode of the disciples walking seven miles with Jesus, whom they did not recognize, in today’s Gospel the risen One expounds the scriptures and then eats. In both instances, as we might expect from Luke’s Gospel, which is very centered on the Eucharist, what we hear about is a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist.
This is not just an exegetical/theological digression. Something that’s kind of neat to know. Grasping this is vital if we are to understand what we not only witness but participate in. We must understand so that we can bear witness. Our Gospel today is about how Christ remains present not merely to us, or even among us, but in us and through us. He is made present in us not merely by receiving communion but by hearing his word, that is, the scriptures. Hearing is a different mode than reading.
While it is a great practice to spend time with the Sunday readings before coming to Mass when we’re gathered and the scriptures are proclaimed they enter us through our ears. The scriptures are proclaimed orally and received aurally. Of course, the readings need to be proclaimed in such a way that it is not necessary for those who can hear to read along. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christian community in ancient Rome: “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”7
Doubt is necessary for faith, especially a vibrant faith, one worth sharing and one that can be shared. Faith is not shared when it pretends to a certainty it cannot possess. Apologetics is not evangelization. Something easy to miss in our Gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter is that despite being “incredulous,” Jesus’s disciples, on seeing him, were filled with joy.8
Being “incredulous” means being unwilling and/or unable to believe something. While we might, at times, find it difficult to believe, we, who have experienced the mysteries we are celebrating, should never be unwilling to believe.
Jesus ‘s resurrection often seems too good to be true. Like his disciples immediately after the Transfiguration, upon hearing Jesus tell them he must die and rise on the third day, we’re still interrogating the meaning of his rising from the dead.9 Our questioning of just what Christ’s rising means intensifies in the face of suffering. But it is by persisting through suffering that we experience what it means to die and rise.
And so, we should heed Saint Paul’s exhortation and “Rejoice always,” especially when the chips are down.10 Our joy is perhaps the most powerful witness to what we see, hear, touch, and taste at Mass. And so, “I shall say it again, rejoice.”11 My dear friends in Christ, the Lord is not only near, he is now here.
1 Luke 24:48.↩
2 Luke 24:41.↩
3 Luke 24:45.↩
4 Hebrews 4:12.↩
5 John Martens, The Word on the Street: Sunday Lectionary Reflections, Year B, 42.↩
6 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.↩
7 Romans 10:17.↩
8 Luke 24:41.↩
9 Mark 9:10.↩
10 Philippians 4:4.↩
11 Philippians 4:4.↩