A few years ago, about two weeks after Easter Sunday, a parishioner came up to me in the Sacristy after one of the Weekday Masses. He was looking very worried. He said, “Father, I have a question that has been troubling me, do you have a moment?” I replied, “Sure, what is the question?” He said, “Father, I have been following the readings of the Gospel since Easter Sunday, and I noticed that after the resurrection of Jesus, his followers could not recognize him immediately, can you tell me why?” He continued, “Jesus died just on Good Friday, and less than a week after that, they could not recognize him, was he beaten by the soldiers beyond recognition, or did he take on a new body at the resurrection?” I took a deep breath and I said, “But I had not been born when it happened, and I have never even been to Jerusalem, so why do you expect me to know?” I then smiled, and he laughed out loud.
After having a good laugh about my response, I became more serious and I went on to explain to him that what is more important for us now as Christians, is not how and why the disciples could not recognize Jesus after the resurrection, but how present-day Christians are still unable to recognize him. Jesus promised to be with us “till the end of time.” Since time has not ended, it means he is with us, but many times, we fail to recognize him.
The story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus in today’s gospel passage is also our story. One of the disciples was called Cleopas. Do you know the name of the second disciple? I guess you don’t know, so I will tell you. His name is Emmanuel Ochigbo. You doubt me? The passage does not give us the name of the disciple, so that gives each of us the opportunity to insert our names. By so doing, we will no longer be spectators as we listen to the story, but we will also become active participants.
As we journey through the changes and chances of this life, as we go through disappointments, as we experience good and bad times, Jesus journeys with us, like he did with the two disciples, but most often, we fail to recognize him. The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in today’s Gospel passage reveals three important places that we can find Jesus. These three places have something common to them, namely, brokenness. The three places Jesus reveals himself in the passage include the broken sister/brother, the broken word, and the broken bread.
First, they met Jesus as a broken brother, a brother in need of companions, a lonely traveler, and an ignorant stranger. When he asked them what they were discussing, their response was like, “Are you not on Facebook? Who do you follow on Tweeter? Do you read newspapers? Don’t you have television? You mean you have not heard the whole News about Jesus, the one some thought was the Messiah, how he was killed, buried, and rumors have it that he is back to life?” I wish they knew the supposed ignorant stranger was the answer to their question. But I am even more concerned about myself today for the many times I fail to recognize Jesus in those who suffer around me.
Secondly, they met Jesus in the broken word. After Jesus joined them, he began to break the word of God by explaining the scriptures from Moses to the prophets. At that point, Jesus was showing them his presence in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and in our daily lives. Jesus is present when we listen to the readings during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, when we reverently read our Bible at home, and when we gather in small groups to study the Bible. There are many Catholics today who question biblical teachings, yet, they can die in defense of some newspapers, or television stations. I worry more about such Catholics than I worry about the disciples, who did not recognize Jesus about his resurrection.
Thirdly, they met Jesus in the broken bread. “He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them… and they recognized him…” Christ is fully present at the Liturgy of the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine that have become his body, his blood, his soul, and his divinity. St. Thomas Aquinas would sing in the Tantum Ergo, “Faith will tell us Christ is present when our human senses fail.” Unfortunately, a survey by Pew Research Center on August 5, 2019 reported “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their Church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.” So, our concern should not be about the early disciples, who did not recognize Jesus after his resurrection, but the two in three American Catholics, who fail to recognize Jesus today.
Another important detail: after he gave them the bread, they recognized him, and he vanished. Why? Yes, there was no more need for him to be with them since he had gone into them and they in turn had become him. It has always been the longing of Jesus that he should be in us, as the Father is in him, that we may all be one (cf. John 17: 22- 23). We therefore become Christ when we receive him in the Eucharist. At that point, he is no longer just with us, but in us. The implication is that when I love you, I love Christ; when I hate you, I hate Christ; for you are no longer you, but Christ. There is the temptation to see him/her as just your husband, wife, parent, child, sibling, neighbor or co-worker. So it was with his first followers. Mary Magdalene at first sight thought he was a gardener. The Emmaus disciples confused him for a lonely and ignorant traveler. The disciples at the shore of the Lake of Galilee were sure that he was a beach comber; it took a second look on each of those occasions for them to recognize Christ. We are also challenged today to give a second look to that person beside us, to the scripture, to the Eucharist, and recognize Christ in them. When we recognize Christ in one another, on the last day, he will say to us, “When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink… whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” Hence, if you want to do something good for Jesus, just do it to the person sitting next to you right now in the Church.