In the breaking of bread

The disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) had two stories to tell. The first was about “how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road.” The second is “how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread” (v. 35 NLT). The first story points out the spiritual treasure that is ours in our searching struggle to make sense of what’s happening in our lives. The second is about the key that will unlock that treasure.

In the first story, the two disciples were trying to make sense of everything that had disrupted their lives. They were feeling that their hopes had been shattered, that their future had suddenly fallen apart, and that there was nothing to replace what they had lost. Today, covid-19 has us trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to make sense of the disruption we’re experiencing. Will our lives ever be the same again? What’s happening to our hopes and plans for life? What does this mean for our future?

Those first two disciples didn’t understand that the hopes they thought had been shattered had in fact been fulfilled in a way they couldn’t recognize at first. They didn’t understand that the relationship they thought had been lost was not lost at all. It was transformed from something temporal and passing to something eternal and enduring.

And they experienced that relationship even before they knew what it was. “Didn’t our hearts feel strangely warm,” they asked, “as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us” (v. 32)? There was a graceful presence with them – they felt it – in their struggle to understand and find meaning in their experience, in their searching of the scriptures for clues to that meaning, and in making that search together.

Searching for understanding and meaning in the disruption of our lives is something we can do much better together than we can do alone. I need healthy doses of solitude, where I can best hear God with the ear of my heart. But almost all of my best insights into life have come after vigorous, thoughtful discussion with others. One of the great gifts we bring to each other is our engagement with one another in the search for meaning. That’s the context in which the risen Christ appears, and it warms our hearts.

The second story, about how Christ is recognized in the breaking of bread, points to the power of symbols to interpret and transform experience. One of the most potent symbols we have in the church is the breaking of bread in holy communion. In partaking of one loaf and sharing a common chalice, we experience the real presence of Christ. The mystical becomes real. It’s not that the bread and wine become literally the body and blood of Christ, but in sharing those elements the way we do, we are renewed as members of the living body of Christ.

It’s the nature of symbols that they cannot be explained, but they function to transform experience and open to us a deeper and transcendent reality. They bring us into a deeper dimension of life. One of the most challenging things about our social distancing during this pandemic is how extraordinarily difficult it is to share in the sacramental symbol of holy communion.

The breaking of bread is perhaps the one place where we most expect the risen Christ to be made known to us, as it was for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But the symbol being unavailable does not mean that the reality it points to is unavailable. It is available, and we can experience the heart-warming presence of the risen Christ; we just need to find another symbol for it. And we might discover, perhaps, that newer symbols can serve just as effectively to communicate the same experience.

Next week I’ll talk about other symbols that might make us aware of that eternal Presence. Eventually we will join in breaking the bread of holy communion again. Perhaps because we’ve missed it for these several weeks, it may have added symbolic power. In the meantime, however, we may find other language and images, that help us tap into the power of divine Presence that we’ve been experiencing all along.

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