An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A, Luke 24:13-35, May 9, 2011
I could not find its roots mentioned in Francisco Alzina’s Historia de las islas y indios de Bisayas, nor in William Henry Scott’s Barangay, nor in F. Landa Jocano’s Filipino Prehistory, but I think the practice must be ancient. I refer to the tradition of inhabitants in the southern towns of Samar island, in which they tender a great banquet to mark the 9th death anniversary of their love ones. I was once invited to such a celebration. After a mass offered for their deceased, those who attended the eucharistic celebration were given raw carabao meat. At noon, all of us were invited to the banquet, and after a few rounds of drink, the orchestra started to play, and dancing began. Whatever its origin, it seems to me that the practice answers the need of the living to connect their lives with those of their loved ones who died almost a decade ago. Celebrations like this refresh their memory, stirring up events that were dear to them and their deceased. I got the impression that commemorating the death of their loved ones in such a grand manner makes them feel as if the deceased were present with them in their celebrations, even as they recall events in their lives that memory suppressed. The living encounter the spirit of the dead as if these were present, as they celebrate these banquets. That probably explains why, though costly, the tradition goes on.
I mention this because it reminds me of a question sometimes raised in Christian faith: if people feel they encounter the spirit of their loved ones in these celebrations, where do Christians encounter the risen Lord? As should be obvious from the Readings of the Easter Season, the central message of the resurrection is that Jesus lives on (Luke 24:23), and that the resurrected Lord is no other than the same Jesus who walked with his disciples (John 20:18). But if he is alive, where do we find him? In Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist carefully points out that the resurrected Christ is identical with the earthly Jesus by demonstrating that the risen Lord performed the same ministries that he did when he was still with his disciples before his death. For instance, he taught his disciples about Moses and the Prophets; he interpreted the Scriptures to them; and he opened their eyes (Luke 24:27-31). But while stressing the identity, Luke likewise points out that there is a discontinuity between the risen Lord and the earthly Jesus. It is for this purpose that he narrates the incident in the Gospel today (Luke 24:13-24). Notice that when Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and joined in their lively exchange, these two who had seen the earthly Jesus failed to recognize him. They simply thought that he was just another Jerusalemite who was rather ignorant of what happened in the city the past few days (Luke 24:18).
At the same time, Luke, in portraying the ignorance of the disciples, could have in mind the situation in his own community in which Christians, who did not see the risen Lord, may have felt themselves less privileged than the disciples who did see the earthly Jesus. It seems that for Luke, what is decisive for the Christian community is not whether or not one saw the earthly Jesus or the risen Lord immediately after the resurrection, but whether one can at the present moment recognize his presence. To bring the point home, Luke tells us that when Jesus “had seated himself with them to eat, he took bread, pronounced the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them” (Luke 24:30b). At this, the eyes of the disciples, who failed to recognize him, were opened, and whereupon they recognized that it was Jesus who was breaking the bread (Luke 24:31). For Luke, then, the presence of Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread. Of course, by breaking of the bread Luke does not mean an ordinary meal. The wording of the narrative easily recalls the institution narrative in which the same verbs practically occur: take, give thanks, break and distribute (Luke 22:19). That is to say, Luke wants to say that the risen Lord is recognized in the celebration of the Eucharist.
This, to be sure, should not be taken to mean that Christ is encountered in the Eucharist without any connection to practical life. The reason for this is that the act of breaking the bread has significance beyond the rite. If the bread is broken, it is because it is meant to be shared. This implies that such values as monopoly, exclusiveness, and selfishness cannot become media of the Lord’s presence. To monopolize business and industry, to place the wealth of the nation in the hands of a few oligarchic families, to arrogate to oneself the rights of others is to deprive oneself of the encounter with the risen Lord, however one tries to create an elaborate worship of him. No wonder that a distinctive feature of the early Church was the holding of possessions in common (Acts 4:32b-34). And the early Christians showed themselves always ready to help those in need (Rom 15:26; 1 Cor 16:1-3; Gal 2:10).
In its pastoral letter issued during the 1987 Eucharistic Year, “One Bread, One Body, One People,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) says in this connection: “It may be truly said that the task of the Church is to radiate the Eucharist in the life of the world. In this sense the ministry of the Church is first and foremost a ‘eucharistic ministry’. Such ministry works toward creating a new world of Christian communities where freedom and justice reign, a new world of loving and caring, sharing and working together—a kingdom of reconciliation and peace.”
The concluding appeal of the letter remains relevant: “Our present situation summons us to seek ways of breaking down the many dividing walls in our midst, binding up and healing our nation’s wounds; of sacrificing ourselves so that those who suffer hunger and other ills which accompany the widespread poverty in our land may find meaningful work and the means to fashion better lives for themselves and their children, worthy of sons and daughters of our Father who is in heaven. The Eucharist is “bread broken to feed a hungry world.’ It is also the bread of brotherhood and it is in the eucharist and from that we must find the motivation and power to realize, even in part, renewed social relationships and a new social order for our people—based on truth and freedom, justice and love. It is in the eucharist and from the eucharist that we must find the wellspring of that peace which we all seek, with such desperate longing, for our country today.”