Last week's Sunday Mass (April 29, 2007) was a unique experience. Not only did I run late for the 7PM mass at the Antipolo Cathedral (I had to wait for my sisters Gelyn and Sigrid, who seem to have no idea how long the commute to the cathedral takes), but the mass there took an unusual 2 hours to finish. It was after all a high mass, celebrated by the priests of the diocese. And it turned out to be more than just an ordinary high mass (because as I recall, there was no special feast day that day), but it was made more special because it was the first mass being led by a newly ordained priest. Gelyn and Sigrid were obviously devoid of any trace of energy they had earlier, since they really weren't expecting the mass to take this long, and be attended by so many people. But I found the mass quite meaningful, uncomfortable though it was. After the mass, relatives and friends of the newly ordained priest gave away prayer cards which featured the exact drawing shown above: "The Breaking of the Bread at Emmaus" by the icon painter Nicholas Papas. It immediately reminded me of one of my most loved story: The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:15-36).
I related in an earlier blog how many Catholics seem to have numerous questions about the celebration of the Mass, often leading them to have misconceptions about this. This lack of understanding, I think drives one to lose impetus in sincerely participating in the Mass. One gets easily distracted and bored (to sleep!)
In fact, the readings and gospel nowadays have been very fascinating. The Acts of the Apostles is one of the main books of source for the readings recently, and for those familiar with the book, it tells the story of the Early Christian Church, how the disciples were spiritually moved to spread Christ's story of redemption beyond the borders of their familiar world amidst persecution and even death. This is an impressive transformation, because within weeks after Christ's death, these were the same people who were hiding, confused, doubting and even oppressing each other. They were like sheep that had lost their shepherd. The two disciples walking in the road to Emmaus was among the sheep, so lost and distraught in faith, they even failed to recognize that the third person who accompanied, spoke and dined with them was already Jesus himself! Jesus had numerous appearances, and this was one of them, but it is quite interesting to note that in most if not all of these appearances, the disciples and their friends always failed to initially recognize him (John 20:11-18, Luke 24:35-48, John 21:1-14, Mark 16:9-15). These disciples were friends of Jesus who accompanied him in most of his ministry life, and yet they failed to recognize him, even at close, during a long 7-mile trip to Emmaus! Quite puzzling isn't it? But to put it quite simply why this could be so, the disciples just weren't expecting him. For them, he was just another man travelling on the same road. Jesus, whom they were expecting to be the Messiah, the hopeful ruler of Israel who would deliver them from Roman rule was dead – a missing body in an empty tomb. This led me to think how I myself could have failed to recognize Jesus in my daily routine. Could I have been too focused on my own expectations and selfish thoughts that I have failed to see that Jesus had already been working in my life all this time? God works in mysterious ways, as the motto goes. Cliché it may seem, but it is perfectly true. We might just be surprised to realize that the person that we have often neglected (an annoying friend, a pesky street child, a parent or distant relative or a wary stranger) was Jesus all along… and the moment we realize it's him, he's gone before our midst (as what happened when the two disciples finally realized it was Jesus dining with them). In the end, we realize it is not important to see him with our own physical eyes, but to seek him with eyes of faith, recognizing him in every person that we will encounter in our lives. As with the gospel today, this reminds me of a verse from a song from Les Miserables that goes "To love another person, is to see the face of God."
In my own quest in finding meaning for my practice of the Catholic faith, I found a refreshing take on the Emmaus story, one that revitalized my outlook on the Mass, particularly the Liturgy of the Word (the part of the Mass, where we listen to the reading/s, the psalms, the gospel and the homily). Scott Hahn wrote in one of the chapters in "Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy" that "Nowhere is the relationship between the Bible and liturgy presented so vividly and succinctly as in the Bible itself, specifically in Luke's account of the conversation on the road to Emmaus." He states that although Luke did not present the exact contents of what Jesus told the disciples in the story, he relates how distinctly Jesus used a certain method: "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." This teaching method adopted in revealing God's divine plan in a manner understandable by humans is theology (or economy) in basic form. Interestingly, Jesus places himself in the picture as the culmination of the prophecies, and the ultimate "types" (typology) of the old scripture characters. The disciples, feeling their "hearts burn" as they are opened to the scriptures, asked Jesus, still a stranger to them, to dine with them. At the table, as Jesus breaks the bread and gives the pieces to them, the disciples finally gained complete understanding (mystagogy). At this point, Jesus vanished out of their sight. But the disciples were not disheartened. In fact, they related what they had experienced with the other apostles.
It is interesting to note that the story identifies so much with the structure of the Mass. The teaching on the road corresponds to the Liturgy of the Word. Notice how most readings which features heavily the Old Testament connects to the gospel which is solely taken from the New Testament. As with the manner Jesus taught the two disciples, the scriptures had to be understood and read canonically, that is in the light of God's plan – how the old scriptures (the Old Testament readings) culminate in Jesus' ministry (the New Testament gospels). The homily aims to bridge an understanding between the read scriptures, how it relates ultimately to our own present lives. What's more interesting to note is that, the purpose of the liturgy is not only to remember what has happened (thus simply relegating it to the distant past), but to actually relive it. As what Jesus did in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus, the Liturgy of the Word culminates in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It's as if we were at the Last Supper itself and every instance of the breaking and partaking of the bread thereafter!
With this knowledge, I now find it difficult not to focus in each aspect of the Mass. I find beauty at the convincing logic in the celebration of the Mass and thus being convinced intellectually, the spirit easily follows! I no longer judge the Mass by the quantity of emotional boost I get from it but the mere participation in it, "together with the choirs of angels and saints" is enough for me. It's funny, I know I've been taught all these since I was a kid being raised in a Catholic school, but it took me until 30 years old, to finally appreciate what I have been doing for nearly two decades. And I know it doesn't stop there and I won't stop asking, the mystery is just beginning to unravel.