One of Martin Luther's most biting accusations against the Catholic Church was that it had turned the action of the Eucharist into the thing of the Eucharist.
We old-timers remember those pre-Vatican II days when, as my father often put it, we went to Mass like "bumps on a log." We didn't say anything; we didn't do anything. The priest was the whole, secretive show. We simply were expected - especially as children - to be attentive to what was quietly going on up at the altar, never to what was going on around us. The latter would be a sin. At most, we were encouraged to follow along with the priest's private prayers by using a vernacular missal. The Masses were things we attended, things which eventually would help us get into heaven - if we attended enough of them. Most people didn't even leave their pews to receive communion.
I can never mention enough the advice that Fr. Frank Murphy gave us transitional deacons in the fall of 1964, just a few months before our ordination and the beginning of the Vatican II Eucharistic reforms. "Your main job as Eucharistic presiders," the future auxiliary bishop of Baltimore insisted, "isn't just to say all the prayers correctly or perform the proper gestures; it's to form the people who are participating in the celebration into the Body of Christ." Our Christian sacred authors couldn't agree more.
Today's gospel pericope is one of the best known passages in Scripture. Yet many of us don't appreciate where Luke's going with the narrative. First of all, Luke's Jesus told his followers not to leave Jerusalem until after they'd received the Spirit. (For Luke, Jerusalem is more a theological experience than a geographic location. It symbolizes wherever and whenever Jesus and his followers suffer, die, rise, and receive the Spirit.) These two disciples - probably Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas - ignore his command and take off for Emmaus at first light on Easter Sunday. For theological purposes, the evangelist has the risen Jesus overtake them and eventually makes certain they return to Jerusalem, as all Christians must return there.
But in the meantime they experience what it means to be in the presence of the risen Jesus. Scholars agree that Luke is basically describing an early Christian Eucharist. Like our present Eucharists, they begin with the "liturgy of the word:" Jesus explains the Scriptures to them along the road. Then they continue into the "liturgy of the bread:" recognizing him during their shared meal in the breaking of the bread.
Through their interaction they surface the risen Jesus - the same interaction our sacred authors presumed would take place during every celebration of the Lord's Supper. Like Peter in our Acts passage, their becoming the Body of Christ through the breaking of bread made them "witnesses" of this unique phenomenon of Jesus and themselves being new creations. And as the author of I Peter stresses, their experience of the risen Jesus instilled in them a faith and hope unlike anyone else's faith and hope.
Of course, we learned as children that Jesus is present in the bread and wine because of the priest's words over those two elements. The priest doesn't even need anyone else to be present for that transubstantiation to take place. But we only surface the risen Jesus present in the community by the interaction of those in the community, in the giving of themselves for one another, the interaction Frank Murphy presumed we presiders would help create. Almost impossible to pull that off if we once again return to just being bumps on a log, forbidden "as church" to even talk to one another "in church."