Sermon for Dominica in Albis 2014
St. Mary Church, Norwalk, CT
From the Gospel according to St. John:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
It is the gospels of St Luke and St John that give us the narratives of the most vivid post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. These appearances are at once strange and ordinary, their strangeness pointing to the dimension shattering act of the Resurrection, their ordinariness underlying the absolute continuity of the risen Lord with the Jesus who died on the Cross: he showed them the wounds in his hands, his feet and his side.
We have often heard Luke’s description of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus. And like with so many familiar gospel passages we tend to take it as just part of the story without too much reflection. And yet this passage is much more than one of the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ. It is rather a profound and fundamental passage for understanding the role of memory and of faith for the Christian.
It is the three women, Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James, who first witness the empty tomb with the stone rolled away. They listen in amazement and fear to the angel’s pronouncement that Jesus had risen. The angel begins his proclamation with: “Remember how he told you.” And the women then remember Jesus’ words and they go to tell the apostles. The women at the tomb rush back to tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the words of the angel. And Luke says, concerning the reaction of the apostles: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them”. Not what we would expect from the men on whom the Church is founded.
Then comes the Emmaus story. Two of Jesus’ disciples are walking to the village of Emmaus and talking about what had happened the past few days and what they had heard. The resurrected Christ joins them on the road and asks them what they are speaking about. They do not recognize him, the man they knew and loved. They give him a synopsis of the events including their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah, that he had been crucified, and what the women at the tomb had told them they had seen. It is at this point that Jesus uses what we call the Old Testament and what the apostles knew as Scripture to explain how what was foretold by the prophets was fulfilled in himself, this man Jesus, whom the apostles do not recognize. Evening is now approaching, and they invite Jesus to stop with them to eat and to stay with them. Jesus accepts. And in that famous scene, when he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them, the apostles recognize the risen Lord. And he vanishes from their sight.
We are so taken by the obvious Eucharistic imagery here that we forget the importance of the teaching that has gone before this. The two apostles knew the writings of the prophets. They were part of their memory, a memory without which they could have no faith as Jews. And what Jesus does during that conversation on the road to Emmaus is to make them understand the meaning of what they remember: that he is the fulfillment of what they remember as pious Jews and in so doing he prepares them for their recognition of him in the breaking of bread.
But you see: without that memory the apostles could not have understood. Without that memory the apostles could not have recognized him as the risen Lord. Without the stories that are an integral part of faith, there can be no recognition of the one who fulfills those stories. And this points to one of the causes of the deep problems of this particular time in the Church. It is as if most Catholics have been lobotomized, their memories removed, their memories that are an integral part of the Catholic faith without which there can be no recognition of the risen Lord in the breaking of bread, in the Mass. One could speak here as well of the deliberate loss of cultural memory of a society that is hell bent on forgetting the bases of its culture in order to do whatever it wants. But what must concern us today is the lack for most Catholics of that memory that is essential for faith, for without that memory faith becomes something of the instant, with no foundation, something that is of the moment, relying merely on feeling and emotion.
That this is true of our young people should be obvious. The failure of religious education in the past fifty years is acknowledged by all. And this is true especially in those places where the faith is taken seriously and the obligation to pass on that faith is taken seriously. The sorry state of religious education in the 1970s was answered by those who saw what was happening and saw that it was not good by reverting to a catechesis that was centered around doctrine, that if we pumped church teaching into our kids that this would somehow solve the problem of a basically secularized and sentimentalized version of religious education. But teaching kids about the Trinity and transubstantiation and the precepts of the Church, while important, has little to do with that memory that is crucial for faith. Because as St. Augustine beautifully and powerfully teaches us in Book X of his Confessions, memory is not just bits of information but is a mysterious and complex and integral part of what it means to be human and plays a central role in faith in God.
Many of the Catholic young people I have taught in various schools through the years have little or no knowledge of the scriptural stories that are the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. How could these kids have listened to the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and have had any understanding of what he was saying? How could Jesus help them interpret their memories as leading to faith if their religious memories are blanks? One cannot recognize the moment of faith if one has nothing to lead up to that moment.
And yet the answer is not having everyone memorize Bible stories, as important as they are. The answer is not merely teaching children the gestures and piety of faith, although teaching a child to genuflect tells them more about the Real Presence than any teaching lesson or sermon. The problem is deeper than that and in the end lies elsewhere. The climax of the Emmaus appearance is when Jesus does at the table what he did at the Last Supper : he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them: all this in the context of the words: Do this in memory of me. Now that English word “memory” does not convey what Jesus said very well at all. Without any pedantic linguistic pretensions on my part, I can say that what the Aramaic and the Greek and even the Latin are saying is more like this: “Do this in the making present of me”. This is the heart of the Catholic understanding of memory in the Catholic faith. It is precisely the Mass that is the memory of the Church, the memory of Christ, the memory of God. What active participation in the Mass really means is participation in the memory of the Church, that memory that includes Scripture, that memory that includes that Tradition that is the handing down of the faith, that memory that allows us to recognize the risen Lord at the elevation of the Host, that memory that allows us to know whom we are receiving in Holy Communion. And the memory of the Church is something living, real, organic, that grows in the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Mass we celebrate here today that is this memory of the Church, and it is so not merely because this rite is approved by the Church to be said at this particular time. It is so because it is the living organic memory of the Church in every gesture, in every note of the chant, in the cadence of the Latin language, in the special tones for the epistle and the gospel, in the deliberately stylized archaisms that counter the rationalism of modernity, in the oneness of the priest and people facing God together, and above all in the silence that is demanded when we “do this” in the making present of our Lord and our God. But when the sacred liturgy of the Church becomes something for experts to tinker with, something to be brought up to date, a date that is always already on the trash-heap of the culture, when it is thought that one has the right to treat the sacred rite as something to edit, copy, delete and paste, one destroys that complex living organism that is the memory of the Church that is the liturgy, and one destroys the very capacity for the Catholic to worship God.
Our prayer must be on this Low Sunday, this Dominica in Albis, this Quasimodo Sunday, that the Church will do what she must do to recover her memory and therefore the memory of her people. And we thank God that in this corner of the world that is called Norwalk, there is this parish church dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, Mary the Mother of the Church, Mary who pondered all these things in her heart: there is this parish church where the faithful come from far and wide to remember, to remember in the beauty of holiness to remember within what has been handed down to us, distilled by the faithful that have gone before us, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to die that we might live, and because He lives in glory, we have a sure hope that by faith in him, we will share that eternal life.