3rd Sunday of Easter
Fr. Joseph Levine; April 26, 2020
Readings: Acts 2:14,22-33; Ps 16:1-2,5,7-8,9-10,11; 1 Pe 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35
In today’s Gospel we heard how on the first Easter Sunday two of Jesus’ disciples were walking downcast and defeated away from the Holy City of Jerusalem. Their hopes had been dashed because they had thought Jesus of Nazareth was the man who would deliver Israel, but he had been brutally crucified by the Romans, after being handed over to them by the leaders of their own people.
As they walk along a mysterious stranger joins up with them and begins talking to them. As they reach their destination, they invite the stranger in with them, and then, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize that the stranger is Jesus himself, risen from the dead. He immediately vanishes from their midst. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?’
In the “Breaking of the Bread”, which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we meet the same Jesus who appeared to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Nevertheless, in this time when access to the Mass is rather limited, perhaps we should focus on Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures.
Jesus’ explanation of the meaning of the Scriptures were the key to the two disciples in their encounter with Jesus and the restoration of their hope. Now, wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear what Jesus told them? Alas, St. Luke does not tell us. He says no more than, Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.
Today, as Catholics, we think of the Scriptures as containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. In addition to “Moses and the prophets” we now have also “The Evangelists and the Apostles”. When Jesus walked with those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, he explained the Old Testament Scriptures to them, because the New Testament was not yet written.
According to an ancient saying, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC 129) Jesus himself, risen from the dead, began that unveiling as he walked with the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Indeed, it is the light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (since his resurrection followed the crucifixion, we can say even the light of his Cross and Resurrection) that is the key to understanding the whole of Scripture.
Jesus explained to those two disciples how everything referred to himself; his own person, the person of the Son of God made man, the Messiah, is the point of reference for the whole of Scripture.
St. Luke does not give us Jesus’ whole explanation, but he actually gives us a very condensed summary of its significance: It was necessary that the Christ (that is the Messiah or the Anointed One) should suffer these things and enter into his glory.
Now, it was not just the two disciples who received this explanation of the meaning of the Old Testament. Shortly after the account we heard today, St. Luke tells us about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There, he opened their mind to understand the Scriptures. (Lk 24:45) He also gives us a brief summary of the meaning of the Scriptures that expands on what we heard today. In the Upper Room he says: Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Lk 24:46-47)
In today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear a brief excerpt from the very beginning of this preaching, beginning in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s discourse to the crowds on the day of Pentecost, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Notice that St. Peter here quotes a passage from the Psalms and interprets it in reference to Jesus’ resurrection. Would not this be an example of the sort of thing that Jesus spoke about to the disciples on the way to Emmaus? Would not this be an example of the understanding that the disciples received in the Upper Room?
Indeed, if we are attentive in reading the New Testament, we find not only an account of Jesus’ life, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection, we find scattered throughout an interpretation, sometimes quite explicit, sometimes implicit, of the Old Testament, all in reference to Jesus. “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC 129)
Perhaps we could say that if we want to know what Jesus said to the disciples on the way to Emmaus we need only read the New Testament.
Or maybe it would be better to say that the New Testament gives us a part of this understanding, complete as to the substance, but not necessarily as to all the details.
The whole has been given to us in the sacred Tradition of the Church, handed on from the Apostles, who learned directly from Jesus. This Tradition has been always faithful as to the substance, but has also grown and developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, confirmed by the Magisterium of the Pope and Bishops, the successors of the Apostles. In this way, if we immerse ourselves in the Tradition, we have access to what the disciples learned on the road to Emmaus and even to more details, more connections, more insights that have emerged over the centuries.
Now, I want to observe something more about the divine pedagogy that is made known to us in today’s Scriptures. It is a pedagogy that introduces us into the mysteries of divine providence.
The Old Testament,which Jesus explains, contains a history, a teaching that refers to the history, and a way of life. The New Testament too will give us a history (the history of Jesus), a teaching, and a way of life. The Old Testament history starts with the creation of the world, the most fundamental fact of all, but mostly recounts the story of people of Israel, beginning with the call of Abraham, about 1,800 years before the birth of Christ.
Jesus explanation of the Old Testament that he gave to the disciples unfolds the whole plan of divine providence culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes known the working of divine providence from the creation of the world through the whole history of Israel, preparing the way for himself. He shows his own death and resurrection as the culmination of that providential plan.
He was known before the foundation of the world but revealed in the final time for you, who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory. Believing in Jesus Christ, we are, in a unique way, the beneficiaries of God’s providential plan. We become part of his history, are guided by his teaching, and come to share his way of life.
Now, it might seem that since everything develops according to a plan that everything comes about by necessity. It might seem, then, that human freedom is but an illusion.
That is a misconception that comes about because we think of God as though he were just another finite human being. If human history had been planned out, to the last detail, by a finite human being who came at the beginning, then we would indeed be enslaved to that human plan.
The present-day architects of progress, with their ‘in vitro’ fertilization, their genetic manipulation, and their artificial intelligence, seem to have some such ambition for the future of humanity.
God, however, is not another finite human being. He is the infinite being, perfect in wisdom and in goodness, who created all things, including human freedom. His providential plan works through the physical laws of the created world, laws that he established, laws of inanimate creation and laws of living creation, but his providential plan also works through human freedom that he created and to which he gave the fundamental orientation towards and desire for the good.
We could say that human freedom was created with an upward impulse towards God, while yet subject to the downward gravity of earthly things. To follow the upward impulse and attain our goal, we need the continual assistance of divine grace, to which we must freely say ‘yes’. Otherwise, refusing the impulse of grace, we fall back to earth. The choice is ours, but whatever our choice, God works through that choice for the realization of his plans.
In today’s 1st reading, in a few brief words, St. Peter reveals to us this interplay between human freedom – rejecting God’s grace – and God’s providence, working even through the choices of evil men.
First, there is the offer of grace given through Jesus himself, a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst. Here God uses human means to persuade men toward the good. But men freely reject the persuasion. This man … you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.
Yet all this took place according to the set plan and foreknowledge of God. Indeed, Jesus freely delivered himself up to those lawless men and so brought the plan of God to fulfilment: by dying he destroyed our death and by rising restored our life. (Easter Preface I) Through his death and resurrection he brought us the forgiveness of sins, the life of grace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. All this has actually come to us through the plan of divine providence, working through human freedom, both accepting that plan, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and rejecting it, like those who crucified Christ.
Through our baptism we have been incorporated into that plan and in the measure that we freely give ourselves over to God’s plan, sharing in the death of Christ, in that measure also we shall share in his resurrection.
According to God’s plan we know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rm 8:28-29)
Confident, then, in the working of divine providence, let us trust ourselves to the plan and conduct ourselves with reverence during this time of our sojourning, knowing that we have been redeemed from futile, worldly conduct not with perishable things like silver and gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless lamb.