In Luke 24:13-35, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus have a surprise encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. There are basically four “stages” of communion in this encounter, and it’s the same four stages, in the same order, that we find in the earliest Christian worship, and that we see in the Mass today.
For evidence of the earliest Christian worship, I’m going to focus particularly on St. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest witnesses to Christianity, and his First Apology, written to defend Christianity to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius. This account is rather early (about 155-157 A.D., which by way of reference is a couple of decades before Christians began to use “Trinity” to describe the Three Persons of God). Already in his writings we see that the 2nd century Christians have internalized the Scriptural teachings about worship and that they’re living them out as a Church, and he helps to show the thread that lies between the worship of 21st century Catholicism and of the 1st century Bible.
So let’s look at each of the four stages, and then consider why it matters that they should all follow the same structure and pattern:
The account of the road to Emmaus begins (Luke 24:13-15):
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma′us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
This is the first level of communion, that of Christian fellowship. Christ promises that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), and here we see that powerfully illustrated. Two disciples are discussing Christ and the events of Holy Week and Good Friday, and the rumors that they’re hearing about an Empty Tomb and a Risen Lord. And Christ shows up right there, in the midst of them, and He dialogues with them.
Justin Martyr describes the same thing, saying that “on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place,” and he explains that:
Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
The first part of the Mass, called the “introductory rites,” acknowledges this first level of communion and community:
The rites that precede the Liturgy of the Word, namely, the Entrance, the Greeting, the Penitential Act, the Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) and Collect, have the character of a beginning, an introduction, and a preparation. Their purpose is to ensure that the faithful, who come together as one, establish communion and dispose themselves properly to listen to the word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily.
All of this emphasizes the aspect of the Church as the “sacrament of unity,” to quote St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258 A.D.):
This sacrament of unity, this bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment, and is possessed as an uninjured and undivided robe by those who cast lots concerning Christ’s garment, who should rather put on Christ.
Vatican II would point to this teaching of St. Cyprian’s in explaining why “Liturgical services are not private functions,” but are inherently public. There’s sometimes an opposition created in speaking about the Liturgy: making it “all about God” instead of “all about the Church” or “all about the community,” etc. But true liturgical worship is the Church coming together to worship God.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is only the first of the four types of communion. The Emmaus-bound disciples still don’t even recognize Jesus (Lk. 24:16). It’s not presented as the pinnacle of Christian worship. It’s good, but it’s not where we’re striving.
2. The Liturgy of the Word
After encountering the disciples and speaking with them, Jesus shared with them from the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27):
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
This is the second stage of the Liturgy. After everyone is gathered together, there’s a two-fold sharing from Scripture: the texts are read, and then they’re preached upon in the homily by the presider. St. Justin Martyr describes it this way:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
And so it is with the Mass today:
The main part of the Liturgy of the Word is made up of the readings from Sacred Scripture together with the chants occurring between them. As for the Homily, the Profession of Faith, and the Universal Prayer, they develop and conclude it.
It’s a communion in the Word through the word of God. God reveals Himself to us through the Scriptures to invite us into deeper relationship with Him. He is present to us through His word. But note how this second type of communion, in the Liturgy of the Word, is organically built upon the first type of communion, the gathering of the Church. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near.” That is, the Bible intends itself to be read publicly in the Church, and this is exactly what we find Jesus doing in Luke 4:16-22, going into the Synagogue on the Sabbath, being handed the scroll of Isaiah, reading it, handing it back, and then opening up its meaning for the assembly.
3. Liturgy of the Eucharist
After the word of God is expounded upon, there’s a turning towards the table for the Eucharistic meal. In the Emmaus encounter, we hear about it in these terms (Luke 24:28-32):
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
So everything seemed to be over when Jesus has finished preaching the Bible to them, but in fact, it’s just a shift. Luke says that He “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke is not assuming that you are too stupid to understand how eating works, as if he needs four separate verbs for you to realize that they ate. This is Eucharistic language. It’s why Luke says in Acts 2:42 that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” He’s not commending the Christians for their devotion to excellent table manners. And yet the Emmaus disciples will describe this encounter in just such liturgical terms, describing how Jesus “was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:35).
And in fact, if this weren’t Eucharistic language, it would be pointless verbiage. It’s not as if Jesus miraculously provided (or multiplied) the bread. He apparently just takes the bread already there, and blesses, breaks, and distributes it. In other words, if the point here isn’t Eucharistic, why mention the bread at all (especially in such detail)? And what on earth would the disciples mean that Jesus was made known in the breaking of the bread? It’s not like Jesus had such a distinctive way of breaking bread that it could only have been Him.
So this is a Eucharistic moment. Jesus is visibly with the disciples on the road, but they can’t see Him for who He truly is, for “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk. 24:16). Now “their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight,” (Lk. 24: 31), apparently leaving them the Eucharist.
Here’s how St. Justin Martyr will describe this same moment:
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, [Luke 22:19] this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.
Justin is clear that the second-century Church truly believes in the Eucharistic Real Presence, that it is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He’s also clear that the Eucharist is brought to the sick, which doesn’t sit well with Luther’s view that the Eucharist was only Jesus’ Body and Blood during the Liturgy. Finally, he specifies that this ability to celebrate the Mass is given to the Apostles, and “to them alone.” The implication there is clear: only those who continue in the line of Apostolic succession have the mandatum to celebrate these sacred rites.
And of course, we continue to celebrate the “breaking of the bread,” the Eucharistic Sacrifice, today:
The consecration is that part of the Eucharistic Prayer during which the priest prays the Lord’s words of institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Through this prayer the bread and wine become the risen Body and Blood of Jesus.
This third type of communion, Eucharistic Communion, is both grounded in Scripture and gives light to Scripture. It’s only after this Eucharistic encounter that the Emmaus disciples are able to say “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And in Revelation, it is only the “Lamb standing as though slain” (that is, the Crucified, Risen, Glorified, and Eucharistic Jesus Christ) who is able to open the seven seals of the revelation of God (Rev. 5:1-7). The Eucharist is the key for unlocking Scripture.
4. Sending Forth
The road to Emmaus encounter doesn’t end with the disciples sitting in Emmaus, reflecting upon their encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. Rather, it says that they went forth to share this good news (Luke 24:33-35):
And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
So they went out and spread the Good News, and they did so right away! As the text makes clear, this last form of communion (in which the Church acts as the instruments of Christ in encountering the world) is rooted in the third form of communion, the Eucharist. It’s precise this Eucharistic encounter that the disciples are sharing. And it’s through this Sacrament that the Church becomes One, (1 Corinthians 10:16) and becomes Christ’s Body on Earth (1 Cor. 12).
Justin Martyr, although silent on the end of the Christian Liturgy, describes this reality by describing how both the Eucharist and alms flow out from the Church to those who need them:
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
The “Mass” actually takes its name from the last from the last words of the Liturgy, Ite, missa est, which means “Go, (the prayer) has been sent,” or “Go, it is the dismissal.” In other words, the very name for the Mass is tied to the fact that, at the end, we’re sent forth.
St. Peter points out in his preaching in Acts 10:39-43 that the Apostles who are sent forth as witnesses and preachers had the common experience of eating and drinking with Christ:
And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
In some way, their commission seems to be connected with their having supped with the Resurrected Christ. The apostolic mandate is rooted in the Eucharistic glory. Christ once described His mission as to set the world on fire: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). And He accomplishes this by setting the hearts of the disciples on fire, and then sending them out into the world.
Why This Matters
Hopefully, it’s clear that it’s not a coincidence that the same basic liturgical pattern is seen in Scripture, in the second century, and in the Catholic Mass today. The Mass is a continuation of the same basic Christian Liturgy that has been taking place since the time of Jesus Christ. And that’s something that a great many popular “emergent Church” and nondenominational and other Protestant and post-Protestant church services can’t say at all.
This should spark a deeper discussion. I heard a story recently of a priest who, invited to come to speak to a Protestant church, began by saying “We both worship the same God, but in different ways. You worship Him your way, we worship Him His way.” I don’t know if that story is true, but there’s a real truth underneath that bombast.
The startling belief of Catholic Christianity is that it isn’t man-made. We can talk about the founders of Mormonism and Islam, of Buddhism, and even of Christian denominations like Lutheranism and Calvinism, and they always have this in common: they were started by imperfect human persons. Not so with Christianity: we can trace our origins all the way back to our Founder, the Divine Person Jesus Christ.
That’s a big difference in how we think and speak about religion. From the Christian perspective generally, and the Catholic perspective particularly, religion isn’t about man reaching out to God, but God reaching out to man, reaching out even upon the wood of the Cross. Church isn’t something man builds for God, but something God built for man, in which man can order his life properly by giving true homage to his Creator and Savior. And so when we talk about “styles of worship,” there are these two incompatible views: are we going to worship God how we want to worship Him, or how He wants to be worshipped? Sometimes, those might be the same thing, but what do we do when they’re not?
Of course, we all want to say we would do things God’s way rather than our own. Otherwise, who are we even worshipping? But if we’re going to do things God’s way, maybe we should change how we think and speak about the Liturgy. Instead of starting with our desires, whether we like that style of music, or whether a particular preacher “works” for us, start with what God has revealed, and work from there. The Psalms are a collection of 150 liturgical prayers for the worship of God, and Jesus personally bequeaths us the Our Father when we asked Him how to pray (Matthew 6:5-15; Luke 11:1-4). The Old Testament is filled with precise descriptions of how to offer right worship, and the Book of Revelation gives us a vision of the Heavenly Liturgy. These texts aren’t going to answer every question, but they should help to get us started. Worship, like theology, is not principally a matter of my preferences, but about the truth.