Many of us find familiar the experience of those discouraged disciples walking to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday afternoon. Their disillusion turned into joy that evening when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:31). While only certain witnesses met the risen Jesus in history, however, all Christians to this day can recognize his presence in every celebration of the Eucharist.
Having been a priest for many years, I describe here how I recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread on four particular occasions when I presided over the celebration of the Eucharist; two of those times took place early after ordination and two much later. Each time I recognized a different dimension of who Jesus is.
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
It was the tradition in Rome, where I was ordained a priest, to offer not just one but three “first Masses.” My second “first Mass” took place on the ancient Via Salaria in the catacomb of Priscilla.
Priscilla was a patrician woman of the second century and a member of a Christian household on whose property the catacomb was located. The second century was a time of great persecution, and among the martyrs interred in the catacomb’s walls were Pope Marcellinus, Saints Felix and Philip, Prisca, Pudentiana, Praxedes and many others.
I had visited this catacomb many times, even though it is not the most attractive to pilgrims, because I loved its striking wall paintings, especially the figure of a woman at prayer, her head veiled and arms raised in a gesture still recognized by all of us. Jesus the Good Shepherd appears as a strapping, beardless youth, holding on his strong shoulders a large ram. The catacomb also contains the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary, her body thrust lovingly toward the child in her lap.
The Mass I celebrated took place in a small room called the Greek chapel. Over my head was a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus is seated in the place of honor at the right end of a crowded banquet sofa. Near him as he breaks the bread are loaves and fishes, reminders of the miracle that had anticipated the institution of the Eucharist. The circumstances of this Mass were simple, even austere, and the art touchingly naïve. The power of the event came from the palpable witness of those who centuries earlier had celebrated Mass here, much as we were doing now. They gave up their lives in witness to Christ, who laid down his own life for the sake of the many. That aspect of Jesus was revealed to me that day as well as the commission of the participants to be witnesses to Christ until the end of time, which is part of every celebration of the Eucharist.
Lourdes is a small village near the Pyrenees Mountains, which form the border between France and Spain. It is a famous place of pilgrimage, particularly for the sick, because of what happened there in 1858. With the pressure of adolescence and the approaching religious milestone of her confirmation, Bernadette Soubirous one day disobeyed her mother and crossed a small river to gather wood. There, in a grotto, Bernadette encountered someone she described as a beautiful lady, who was dressed in white and wore a belt of blue. The beautiful lady was very kind.
On another visit to the grotto, Bernadette asked the lady what her name was; she replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette did not know that in 1854 the pope had conferred this title upon Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Bernadette was instructed to make a hole in the ground; from it came a well of water. This is the source of the water that attracts pilgrims who seek healing of mind and body.
Within a week of my ordination I went with my parents to Lourdes. I was assigned the hour of 6 a.m. for the Mass I would celebrate in the grotto the next day. As I began the celebration, the only light came from a tree of candles burning in front of the niche where Mary had appeared. I did not know if anyone other than my parents was present; all I could hear was the sound of the river flowing by. As the Mass progressed the sun rose, and I was startled to see hundreds of people surrounding us and participating in the liturgy. At this breaking of the bread they were seeking the Jesus who healed bodies and souls, the divine physician who still made the blind see and the lame walk.
The Lord of Nature
Base of Mount Katahdin, Me.
Mount Katahdin is Maine’s iconic mountain. Three times during the 10 years I served as pastor in my last parish, I accompanied our high school youth to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, and our junior high youth to Cobscook State Park, for wilderness retreats. These young parishioners had until then attended Mass only indoors. My aim was to let them experience the Eucharist in natural settings in the hope that they might discover the Jesus who told us to look, just look, at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air to discover the Father’s love for all creatures, even the humblest.
Such spectacular settings cannot help but inspire awe and wonder. Outside our usual surroundings, sleeping in tents upon the ground, eating food we prepared for ourselves, we gained new perspective on our lives. In the human-made structures in which we typically celebrate the Eucharist, we can miss the profound grounding of religious feasts and symbols in the world of nature. All of nature, not just human beings, as St. Paul wrote, groans for redemption. At the base of the majestic Mount Katahdin we encountered Jesus in all his cosmic reality.
The Man for All Cultures
Last summer with some Thai parishioners I made a return visit to Thailand. Toward the end of our stay we spent a weekend in a house they owned in Pattaya, on the Indian Ocean. At Sunday Mass in the parish church of St. Nikolaus, we discovered a large, diverse congregation gathered under the roof of a building that, because of the intense heat, had no sides. The altar servers, wearing white albs, were barefoot. As the procession moved toward the sanctuary, the congregation bowed as we passed, giving the respectful “wau” gesture, humbly touching their folded hands to their bent foreheads.
When the Mass was over our group paid a visit to the cemetery on the grounds of the church where my parishioners’ parents were buried. They had come as boat people to Bangkok to escape religious persecution of Catholics in their native China. There we offered prayers for the dead, a remembrance that is part of the Buddhist and Catholic cultures.
Then we drove to a large Catholic orphanage, home to hundreds of children, some left on the doorstep just after birth. It was to the cribs of these infants that we were directed. Some of us readily picked up the babies and held them, making them smile. I could not. I did not want to form a bond with these beautiful babies and then have to return them to their cribs and leave.
At Pattaya I rediscovered the Jesus who belongs to all peoples and cultures, including those that are very different from the one in which I grew up. Jesus was born an Asian. In the first millennium he was introduced to Europe and Africa, in the second to America. It is only natural for his fellow Asian people to know him in the breaking of the bread.
. . .
I was the priest at the eucharistic celebrations I have described, but only as the instrument of the multifaceted Christ who keeps revealing himself in new and different ways to every congregation and also to me. Christ who lays down his life, who heals, who is the wisdom behind the whole natural world, and who is comfortable with cultures far different from our own is the one who walks with us, at first as a stranger until we recognize him in each breaking of the bread.