When you sit at a restaurant table and the waiter brings a basket of bread, precut but not all the way through, and the basket gets passed from person to person, you are literally breaking bread together. Ancient cultures — and many still today — weren’t the least bit squeamish about the dirt the bread picked up as it made its way from hand to hand. And, of course, they had no idea about bacteria or any other invisible enemies.
Bread to them was life — figurative and literal life. As they ate from the same loaf, they were keenly aware that they were feeding on a common source of life. That life made them one people and symbolized their unity. With food of all kinds available to us day & night and wherever we go, the sense of a family meal as a life source is greatly diminished. On the other hand, for our ancestors it played a major role in their identity as a people.
We heard in today’s gospel passage that after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples “knew him in the breaking of the bread.” As helpful and enlightening as all the instruction they were getting from this apparent stranger along the way must have been, within the context of the story as we know it, that intellectual approach was not enough to make those men realize that the one they were conversing with was actually Jesus. It was their friend and teacher who had been crucified, the Jesus who was said to be alive but whom they had not yet seen — or so they thought.
But when they sat down to eat with him, when they broke bread with this stranger, the process of discovery was complete: their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
But wouldn’t those who believe that Jesus rose physically from death ask, Wait a minute: you mean they did not immediately recognize his face, his voice, his accent, his laugh, the message in the instruction they were getting from him?
My guess is that what we have been left with is a timeless, beautiful, highly symbolic story whose job it is to reveal to all of us a very significant layer of meaning in this Jesus event that we might otherwise have failed to appreciate.
What we are hearing is a gift to us — a brilliantly conceived story of embellishment and clarification.
The careful instruction they had received from him during their long walk together was not sufficient for what he had in mind. It had to be accompanied by another kind of experience, an experience of deep, personal fellowship in that best understood setting of a meal — the sharing of life from a common source.
Put the two together and we have sacrament. The sacrament of Eucharist. The earliest Christians called the Mass the “breaking of bread.” It had two basic parts: words of scripture, both ancient and contemporary; and the action involving the bread & wine.
Let’s keep in mind that this meal event takes place in the course of a journey. What could that imply but the journey that you and I are on? We are walking through life with Jesus, conversing all the way, stopping occasionally to eat or to rest, becoming more familiar with him with each shared step.
There is no fixed roadmap so complete that it can serve as guide in all the circumstances of our lives. But we have more than that: we walk with the Risen Jesus every step, every minute of the unpredictable way. If we relate to him honestly, openly, frankly, we will get from him, especially in the breaking of the bread, the most satisfying answers.