Thursday, April 27, 2006

Be Known To Us In Breaking Bread

There's nothing so irritating as someone who doesn't know what's going on, especially when everyone else is glued to the news because of some headline grabbing event that has stirred things up. The two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion – probably his wife, cannot believe it when the stranger asks them, 'What things?' [1]
We've all been in the same situation, haven't we? 'You mean to tell me that you don't know! Where have you been?' we ask, incredulously. 'Haven't you seen ”The News”?'
Of course, there's more than a smidgen of irony here. If the stranger has lost touch it's not because he forgot to turn on the TV news bulletins. He's been dead and buried! And all the time – whether he was alive or dead – he was at the very centre of the events they describe. When the two disciples explain how Jesus of Nazareth was handed over to be condemned to death and crucified, and how – since then – his body has disappeared from the tomb, the stranger knows exactly what they are talking about! He has been there and done it.
St Luke's decision to gloss over the stranger's explanation of what it all means sets a precedent which soon gave rise to a dangerous trend in early Christianity. All manner of people came up with ready explanations of precisely what it was that Jesus had shared with his disciples during his resurrection appearances. Their starting point was always that Jesus needed to interpret the secret truth about himself which is hidden in the Scriptures. And, of course, they – and they alone – had the low down on what it all really means. Forget the obvious interpretation, this is the truth which was revealed to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, or to Thomas on the Mount of Olives, or to Judas Iscariot.
This to misunderstand entirely what St Luke is trying to say. There is no big secret. We already have the key which will unlock the true meaning that lies concealed within the text. If we want to understand the God whom the Old and New Testaments are pointing us to, we simply need to keep in mind that God's Go-Between, Jesus, had to suffer before he could enter into his glory. Those were the only rules of the game and, once we have recognised that, some of the long narrative of salvation history begins to make sense – the forty years which the people of Israel had to spend in the wilderness, their exile to Babylon, the prophecies about the Suffering Servant who would redeem Israel, and the story of Jesus himself.
St Luke never claims, in any case, that knowledge is the key to understanding. The disciples listen, but they do not hear what the stranger is saying to them. The moment of recognition comes not as he unfolds the secret mysteries to them on the road, but in the simple act of breaking and sharing bread. It is only then that their eyes are opened and, with the benefit of hindsight, they remember how their hearts burned within them while he was opening the meaning of the Scriptures.
Readers of books like The Da Vince Code are easily convinced that there are still conspiracies and secrets waiting to be uncovered which will reveal the truth about Christianity. This so amused Peter Smith, the judge in the recent trial of Dan Brown for plagiarism, that he concealed a cryptic message within his Judgement, using a code which he had invented especially for the occasion, 'The Smithy Code'. The judge said he didn't see why his ruling shouldn't be fun – a view that surely can't be shared by the losers in the case, the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.
But the really exciting thing that is waiting to be discovered is not a secret at all. St Luke explains that it is this – we can encounter the risen Jesus ourselves as we gather around the table to share Holy Communion. He is with us, and makes himself known to us, every time the bread is blessed and broken.
[1] Luke 24.13-49

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