April 25, 2020
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Acts 2:14, 22-33
1 Peter 1:17-21
A lesson that I have had reinforced during the last five weeks of the absence of public Mass in the presence of a gathered assembly is that we are most definitely not a Church of concepts or signs. Our experience has reminded us that live-streaming is most inadequate for our worship of almighty God as He desires and deserves to be worshipped, above all through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments, in all of their symbolic ritual and integrity that invite us to give of ourselves leading us to communion that transforms each of us. The disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus offer us an excellent point of departure for our reflection on the gift of the sacraments that we have previously overlooked and to which many times we were inattentive.
The privilege of the angels is that they possess an unbroken gaze upon God. The angels are never distracted from God; they are always attentive to God. They are not attentive to the concept of God as the Supreme Being; they are directly attentive to Him in love. The grace of the sacraments as instituted by Christ is that grace enables us to be attentive to Him and not simply knowledgeable of the concept of God.
The sacraments are effective symbols: they are not signs that point to concepts or abstract ideas about God and about human beings. A sign instructs me to go to where the sign points without changing me in any way. Signs are directional and conceptual. Symbols announce a real but hidden presence. Sacraments announce, offer, and invite. If sacraments were simply signs, then we would be satisfied by live-streaming the Mass and we would be content with offering a confession through Skype or cell phones. We would be satisfied by simply talking about what Jesus taught and what He did so long ago in human history. Live-streaming, if sacraments were merely signs, is a means that could accomplish this task and it would be sufficient. Yet, we know that it is not sufficient because we, who are a union of body and soul, have a hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ. We know that Christ — offered to us in the worthy reception of Holy Communion — invites us and enables us to change and to accept the transformative union with God and with our neighbor.
Knowing that the elements of bread and wine, sacrificially offered by Christ through the sacramental ministry of the priest, are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ — what human could be truly satisfied with an image on a screen? We want Him, not just an image of Him or an idea about Him. We want Him! It is not enough to know about Christ, we must know Him, and unite with Him in sacramental love for us to be changed. The reception of the sacrament requires our active participation in the sacrifice. Thus, Mass is not simply a place where I go to Communion but where I enter into the sacrifice of Christ and am able to offer my sufferings in union with His sufferings with them being transformed into love.
A sign requires me to look conceptually to where the sign points. A sign directs me to stop or to go. A sign conveys a message or recalls an historical action. A sign does not change or transform me in any way, because I do not interact with it — I notice it, nothing more. A symbol is a mediator between the public and private dimensions of persons and makes available to me in a public way that real but private, hidden reality which is symbolized. A symbol says, “Here, I am.” A symbol announces a presence that does not require words to convey. A wedding ring is a symbol that the sacrament of matrimony uses to say, “Here I am, now act accordingly.” A wedding ring is a symbol that announces the responsibilities and rights of marriage between a husband and wife without using words to articulate a philosophy or even a detailed theology of marriage. Yet, the wedding ring is not a sacrament because a sacrament has a symbolic integrity and ritual all its own that is set by God and offers contact with that which is symbolized. God decides how the sacraments are to be offered, with what and by whom and for whom. Sacraments, like Christ, are incarnational and touch us; they offer an invitation for the giving of oneself in love that transforms the person through communion with God and other people who are also called and invited by God. A sign directs. A symbol announces. A sacrament announces and invites. The sign directs, “Go there.” The symbol announces, “Here I am.” The sacrament announces and invites, “Here I am, come to me.”
The disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus are prevented from recognizing Jesus because they are focused on their interior experience and their concepts about who they thought that Christ was and how their expectations were not met. They are not attentive to Christ Himself. They have been looking for a sign, but Christ uses a symbol for them to encounter Him sacramentally in the breaking of the bread. In the breaking of the Bread, Christ enables them to be attentive to Him and not simply think about Him or about what He taught. The disciples do not recognize Jesus until they encounter Him in the breaking of the Bread — the sacramental symbol of the Eucharist. They taste and see; they are touched by Him; they touch Him. They are present at the one sacrifice offered by Christ again. They witness with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and go to a place where they can give themselves in communion with Christ. So, it is for us in the gift of the sacraments that are so much more than signs and symbols.
Sacraments are incarnational. They are enfleshed symbols of God’s unconditional love as instituted by Christ who is God incarnate. Their material matters. The bread and grape wine of the Eucharist matter because they both feed and tell the story of Christ Who is broken in order to be given to us. The male-only priesthood matters because it effectively symbolizes Jesus Christ as head and bridegroom of the Church. Of course, as we need water to relieve the thirst of our body, we also need the living water from heaven to quench the thirst of our souls in baptism. Likewise, when we are sick, we may rightly enjoy hearing about God’s love for us and about the miracles of Christ that healed the sick, and even more so we gladly welcome the anointing with sacramental oil, the tangible reminder that makes present the love of God who loves us so much that He is willing to touch us and to stay with us in our pain and in our need.
The sacramental symbols taken up in sacramental action announce that Christ is not only with us, He is with us effectively. The sacraments announce that Christ is not only present to us, but that He is also present for us; they invite us to come to Him and enable us to not only be present to Him but to be present with and in Him. The disciples in today’s Gospel move from simply thoughts and stories about Jesus and what has happened to Him and about what He said, to a real encounter with Jesus Himself which changes them and changes the direction of their lives by enabling them to be not only alert to Him but also in union with Him.
The limitations of western and contemporary philosophy include the over-reliance on the metaphor of sight in coming to understand and to recognize concepts. In contrast with that is the essential metaphor for the Christian Gospel revealed by the Incarnate Son of God: touch. Christ touched the lepers. Christ touched the eyes of the blind man and healed them. Christ washed the feet of the disciples. Christ offered Thomas His glorified wounds to touch. Christ broke the bread, blessed it, and shared it with His disciples. Christ, sacramentally, does the same to us and for us and transforms us to send us into the world to embrace and to transform it by the proclamation of the Gospel of Mercy rooted in the truth fully revealed by Christ. This, too, is an important point that five weeks of intentional social distancing without touch have reinforced: sacraments are the sacrificial means by which Christ lovingly touches us and transforms us.
Next week, as we begin to return to the public celebration of Mass and to the reception of Holy Communion, let’s not set off down the road to Emmaus where we are lost in signs and concepts about Jesus, inattentive to Him as He announces Himself to us and invites us to come to Him. Let us truly ask Him to abide with us just as the disciples in today’s Gospel asked Him; to be attentive to us that we might in return be attentive to Him and accept His invitation to be in transformative communion with Him and with each other as we carry out His mission of truth and mercy embracing and grateful for the gift of His sacramental presence.