“Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”
The purpose of the Mass is to help us hear Jesus, see Jesus, receive Jesus, and serve Jesus. This description isn’t exhaustive, of course. For one thing, it leaves out the Holy Spirit and God the Father. But if we grant that this description would eventually need to be expanded, we can use it to reflect on today’s Gospel passage.
Following the Introductory Rites, the first chief part of Holy Mass is the Liturgy of the Word. As the Word of God speaks through His Scriptures, He teaches us about God, about us as sinners, and about how we might become united with God. This teaching takes many different forms over the course of three years, which is the length of time it takes our Sunday Scriptures to repeat themselves.
On a given Sunday, through the course of the four Sunday Scripture readings (including the Responsorial), we make an ascent. This ascent reaches its climax when the Gospel passage is proclaimed: this is why we stand for the proclamation of the Gospel. We hear about the words and works of the Word of God in the Flesh. We profess exactly who this divine Person is when we stand after the homily and proclaim in the Creed that “[f]or us men and for our salvation [this Word of God] came down from Heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
But then, in the second chief part of Holy Mass, something miraculous takes place. If the first part is the Liturgy of the Word, the second is the Liturgy of the Word Made Flesh. That is to say that God does the proclamation of the Gospel one better: the One whose words and works were proclaimed to our ears becomes incarnate before our eyes. The Word of God that we hear in Scripture, becomes the Word made Flesh in the Eucharist.
As the Word becomes Flesh at the altar and dwells among us, we certainly adore Him as He’s raised up at the Consecration. But that’s not enough for God. In addition to allowing us to adore Him from afar, He invites us to His Supper. We are not worthy to receive His Body and Blood, soul and divinity, but He wills it more than we deserve it.
This two-fold Mystery—of God’s Word, and God’s Word made Flesh—is what St. Luke proclaims to us in today’s Gospel passage. The two disciples, who symbolize you and me, are on the way to Emmaus, and are caught unawares by this man with whom they converse. At first they don’t recognize him. But as they hear him, their hearts burn with passion for God through Sacred Scripture. After a long journey, they recognize Jesus in what St. Luke the Evangelist calls “the breaking of bread”: a phrase Luke uses throughout his other book of the Bible—Acts of the Apostles—to refer to the Holy Eucharist.
But what do these two disciples do after Jesus proclaims the Word to them, and shares with them the Word made Flesh? After hearing, seeing, and receiving Jesus, they serve Him by sharing with others their encounter with the Word made Flesh.
That such service is called for from those who receive the Holy Eucharist is ritualized in the conclusion of Holy Mass. In fact, the word “Mass” comes from the Latin for the phrase spoken at the end of Holy Mass: “Ite, missa est”. This phrase, while officially translated as “Go forth, the Mass is ended”, literally means “Go, the dismissal is made.”
Pope Benedict XVI in a 2007 document on the Sacrament of the Eucharist taught us: “In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal’. However in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission’. These few words [that is, “Ite, missa est”] succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church.” This teaching from our Pope Emeritus helps us see today’s Gospel passage, and the gift of Holy Mass itself, in light of the end—the goal—of the Easter Season: the solemn feast of Pentecost.