Q: Archbishop J, what is the impact of the homily?
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal 65 says the homily is necessary for nurturing the Christian life. St Ignatius of Loyola speaks about Christ-life as the life of grace that we were given in baptism when we were grafted into Christ. The homily is necessary for nurturing this life. For Christ-life to flourish, we need eyes to see Christ, encounter Him, and follow Him in His mission.
Centrality of the Cross
On the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35) the Christian theology of the homily is laid out before us. The text is rich, with many layers.
The disciples were distraught and fleeing Jerusalem in despair, when the stranger walked up to them. They recount their hopes, broken dreams and disbelief to him. What unfolds next is pure grace and mercy.
After he chides them for being foolish and slow, the companion gives them the principle for interpreting Scripture, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26)
Two challenges stump them. First, like Peter and the apostles in Matthew 16:22–23, they could not comprehend a suffering Messiah—had no capacity for seeing suffering as redemptive. This was the first block to the message of the Resurrection.
Second, they could not believe a dead man could come back to life. The first thing Christian preaching must do is address these two blocks.
If we cannot see suffering and the cross as redemptive, we will not be prepared to suffer and die for Christ. If we do not believe in the Resurrection, there is no ground or hope for our faith: We will live rather to preserve our life in this world, and thus lose our soul (Mt 16:24–25).
St Paul says he resolves to know nothing except Christ and Christ crucified (1Cor 2:2). The cross of Christ is central to nurturing Christ-life. The Resurrection is the portal that allows that life to come alive in us.
Interplay of the Old and New Testament
Then, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets”, the companion explains to them, “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).
Part of the spirituality of the Lectionary is that the Old Testament reading is chosen specifically to interpret and shed light on the New. We read the events of Jesus, and understand their meaning, through the lens of the Old Testament. This is central to understanding the homily.
Jesus, “beginning with Moses”, interprets the Old Testament to show that the Christ should suffer and die to enter into His glory. We cannot get to glory except through the cross, just as we cannot understand the Jesus event except through a reading and interpretation of the Old. Cross and glory must both be held.
Portals to mystery
Just as we interpret the New Testament in the light of the Old, we interpret the breaking of the bread through the breaking of the Word. They are interconnected.
The text continues: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Lk 24:30, 31).
In the Resurrection appearances there is a familiar pattern. The disciples see a stranger whom they do not recognise; some interaction follows, and then they recognise Him. For Mary it was being called by name (Jn 20:16), with Thomas it was touching the wounds of Christ (Jn 20:24–29), with Peter it was the abundance of fish (Jn 21:7ff), at Emmaus it is the breaking of the bread.
These portals to mystery are not for the original disciples alone; they are structures of grace and allow us in. We too can see Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
His Excellency Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu makes a wonderful point here. In the Book of Genesis, Eve is seduced by the promise that by eating the fruit “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).
This is the subtlety of evil; what is promised and what happens is very different. After eating, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Gen 3:7).
Their eyes were opened but only to see themselves. Thus, they realise they are naked and are ashamed. The sin moved their eyes from God to themselves causing shame.
In the Emmaus story we have the reversal. The disciples’ eyes were opened (v 31) and again they see the Lord. Spiritual sight is restored, they are no longer looking at themselves. They recognise Christ. This is the fruit of the encounter with the resurrected Christ – we move our gaze from ourselves to God.
With their eyes opened, they ask each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v 32)
In the breaking of the bread, the disciples realised what was happening within them. An inseparable connection exists between the breaking of the Word and the breaking of the bread.
Before their eyes were opened, they were not aware their hearts were burning. Without the breaking of the Word, they would not have been ready to encounter Christ in the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist they would not have realised their hearts were burning. Word and Eucharist need each other for the disciple to enter through the portal to the sacred mystery. This is how Christ-life is nurtured.
The Introduction to the Lectionary 24 says:
The purpose of the homily at Mass is that the spoken Word of God and the liturgy of the Eucharist may together become a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ. Through the readings and homily Christ’s Paschal Mystery is proclaimed; through the sacrifice of the Mass it becomes present. Moreover, Christ himself is also always present and active in the preaching of his Church.
Key Message: Through the homily we are prepared to encounter Christ in the Eucharist where we realise that we encountered Him in the Word.
Action Step: Meditatively read the Sunday readings before going to Mass. Pray for your priest every week as he prepares the homily.
Scripture Reading: Luke 24:13–35