Peace of Christ.
More years ago than I want to admit (especially to myself), my Provincial sent me to Berkeley to complete my theological studies (the last step in my formation prior to ordination). While I was there, I had the great fortune to get to know an older Jesuit who was a scholar-in-residence in our community. Broadly educated and well-read, he was a peerless preacher, a compelling lecturer, and a wise spiritual director. Therefore, his classes sold out. His Mass attendance was famously large. Other Jesuits all but fought to sit with him at dinner—to take notes on what he said. My classmates and I may have been young, but we were not completely clueless. Therefore, it didn’t take us long to realize that he was the Real Deal—in Jesuit terms. A man of great stature. A wise man. A holy man. A compassionate priest. A perceptive mentor. An exemplary Jesuit. Now, don’t get me wrong. He was no plaster saint or sappy holy picture. He had an infectious laugh and a wicked sense of humor. Fortified with all of these gifts, he made it a part of his ministry to us to engage us in what St. Ignatius calls “spiritual conversations.”
In the course of one of those conversations, he suggested that since our lives in ministry would revolve around the “breaking of the bread” (the celebration of the Eucharist), it would be wise for us to look long and hard (and with open eyes, ears, and hearts) at what he loosely called by turns “the theology of dining” or “ministry of the table” contained in the Gospel stories that focused on Jesus as He ate with others. He challenged us to begin our explorations by letting go of our preconceived notions of God and how He acted. (Not to put too fine a point on it, he told us to “let God be God.”) He then encouraged us to switch on “Ignatian mode.” Hmm. We were to watch Jesus in action. To listen attentively to what He said. And to learn with our hearts. (He warned us that what we saw would challenge our preconceived notions as to just who God was. It turned out to be an open-ended seminar. In fact, it is a seminar that has continued till now (and I suspect that it will continue forever).
As I began the assignment, I discovered that (sure enough) Jesus liked to eat. A lot. And seemingly everywhere. From the wedding feast at Cana, to a dinner at Peter’s house, to the dinner to which He invited Himself at the house of Zacchaeus (a tax collector), to the dinner at the house of Matthew (another tax collector), to the dinner in Bethany at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand who had followed Him into the wilderness, to the dinner at the house of Simon the Leper, to eating grain on the Sabbath with the disciples on the road, to the uncomfortable dinner at the home of a Pharisee where his feet were washed with the tears of a sinful woman, to the Passover dinner He celebrated on Holy Thursday. As I said, He loved the company of others. And He indulged that love by sharing meals with others.
And just what have I learned so far about the “theology of dining” and the “ministry of the table” found in the Gospels in this ongoing seminar that I began in 1975? First, that Jesus went out of His way to welcome and eat with sinners (the tax collectors and the woman who washed his feet with her tears), outcasts. and those who suffered from physical infirmities (Simon the Leper) to identify with them and bring them to Himself. Second, He took special delight in sharing meals with His disciples—meals at which He taught them, encouraged them, and drew them ever closer to Himself as true companions (those with whom He shared bread). Third, in His stern reactions to those who were scandalized by the audacity He showed by eating with outcasts, He made it very clear that God’s heart and love are far more expansive than the self-righteous can ever understand.
The Resurrection did not erase or diminish the delight that the Lord took in engaging in table fellowship with those whom He loved. Far from it. The Gospel accounts of the meals that He shared with His disciples in the Upper Room, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and on the road to Emmaus are suffused with warmth and speak quite powerfully of His heartfelt desire to comfort, console, and embrace them in their time of loss. And to teach them what being “companions with Him in His mission and ministry” entailed.
Of all the stories of Jesus’ post-Resurrection meals, the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus is probably the most loved. In it, Jesus catches up with two dispirited disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus. He falls in with them and asks them what they are talking about. Shocked at His question, they ask Him if He is the only person who doesn’t know about what had happened in Jerusalem during the days leading up to their encounter. Feigning ignorance, Jesus asks them to enlighten Him. After they finish pouring their hearts out, it is His turn to enlighten them, which He does straight away, explaining to them how and why the Son of God had to suffer and then rise from the dead. When they arrive at Emmaus and Jesus excuses Himself so He can continue His journey, they beg Him to join Him for a meal. He relents. Then, as He breaks the bread, they recognize Him. When He disappears from their sight, the disciples hightail it back to the Upper Room to share the news of their encounter with the hunkered-down disciples.
The story of the Lord’s encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus is not only a much-loved story, it is also an oddly (or wonderfully) unfinished one. What do I mean? Much to the consternation of scripture scholars, the location of Emmaus has never been identified. Therefore, its timeless message about the Lord’s deep and loving desire to catch up to and console all who are weighed down with sorrow, grief, or perplexity is what is important. The exact location of the encounter is not. But what does that mean for us? You know where I am going.
My sisters and brothers, if the truth were told, we would have to admit that in the course of the past few weeks, we have been modern-day disciples on our own road to Emmaus. Like the first disciples on the way to Emmaus, our lives have not been easy. Rather, our every waking hour has been dominated by conversations about and reflections on the present crisis, conversations focused on heart-wrenching stories about lives lost and shattered dreams. About how lost we feel. Alone. Frightened. Hungry for meaning and understanding. Above all, hungry for God’s presence and consolation. With our hearts filled with these emotions and with tears in our eyes, we want to say to God: Where were You? Where are You?
He has been there. And how could He not have been? After all, His heart is always drawn to those who are suffering. Trust me. It is. The Lord has quietly rushed to catch up to us as we have walked a road filled with sorrow. He has eavesdropped on our grief-filled conversations. If He were to ask us what we are talking about or grieving about, we would probably respond with more colorful language than the disciples did. (Since we are all Americans and many of us are New Yorkers, we would probably answer His question with: “Are ya kidding? Where’ve you been? Don’t they have CNN where you live?”) Then, we would let it all spill out. No holds barred. Full-on. And He would listen. Attentively. From the heart. He would not interrupt. He would take it all in. And, as He did with and for the weary disciples in Saint Luke’s Gospel, He would then share with us a great, consoling, and reassuring secret: that in the Resurrection, God says in an unforgettable way that anyone who is brave enough to live a life of unselfish love in imitation of Christ’s life will share in the power of the Resurrection.
Emboldened by the Emmaus story, then, let me propose that you invite Him to take a seat at your kitchen table, where real life plays itself out with a rich mix of strong words and stronger love. No ceremony, please. No Sunday best. Just the knock-about garb of a hunkered-down family. Be honest with Him, for that is what He has always preferred. Speak from the heart. Break bread with Him. As you draw Him into your family, He will draw you into His. That is the magic of table fellowship. The Lord’s way. And then, let your prayers flow. You know what I mean. Ask Him to watch over your family and all whom you love. Ask Him to strengthen and sustain all health care workers. Beg Him to hold the hands of those who have no one with them as they prepare to enter eternal life. Commend to His loving mercy those who have died. Remind Him to embrace the grieving. He will listen from the heart. He surely will, for they are all (in His eyes) His companions and members of His household. They are all close to His heart. Trust me. They are and will be forever.
Please be assured of my prayers every day, especially when I am at the Lord’s table with all of you in my heart.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, Your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend ourselves in loving service of others.