Here's a modified version of my homily for this past weekend.
I love college sports, and this weekend's one of the biggest such events in the year. But I'm really an Oregon Duck fan. I was hoping that UCLA would win because they're Pac-10, but their loss doesn't crush me any more than their victory would have given me joy. It doesn't impact me.
It's possible to feel somewhat the same way about the Easter Season. For 50 days we hear the recurring theme of great joy, ecstatic exultation, alleluias, and the scriptural equivalent of "Jesus is #1" and it can feel a bit forced. I think the Gospel today helps me understand why this is so.
What's the culminating moment of today's Gospel? Jesus, while he was with the two disciples at table, took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. This really begs the question of why "they were prevented from recognizing him" in the first place.
Just as Jesus helped the two disciples understand what had happened to him by revealing how the OT spoke consistently of him in images like Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son, or the Passover lamb, Isaiah's suffering servant, or of Wisdom 2's description of how the wicked want to destroy the righteous one, we have to see this moment of the Gospel in terms of the OT.
There's another significant moment in the Bible in which a sharing of food opens two people's eyes. It's the first meal we encounter in the Scriptures, in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve share a meal of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and what happens? "The eyes of both of them were opened and they recognized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together to make loincloths for themselves."
The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil did its job. Immediately upon eating it, Adam and Eve know that what they have done is evil. They had disrupted their relationship with God. They knew they had sinned – and the first thing they do is try to hide it with a few fig leaves. This doesn't mean that our sinfulness is primarily sexual. Adam and Eve, in disobeying God, experience death, as God had promised. Not a physical death, immediately, but a theological one. They experience a separation from God, the creator of life, and they specifically hide that part of them that God gave to make them co-creators with Him, capable of bringing new life into the world.
They also hide from one another the means through which we physically express our deepest intimacy and vulnerability with each other. The next thing they do is hide themselves from God, who had created them in love and had given them everything.
And then when confronted with their sin, they attempt to hide it by blaming someone else: Eve blames the serpent because Adam beat her to the punch; but Adam doesn't just blame Eve. He says to God, "the woman, whom You put here, gave me the fruit, and I ate."
This is still a favorite ruse of ours. We hide and deny our sinfulness in a multitude of ways, behind a whole wardrobe of fig leaves that help us maintain a veneer of respectability.
The power of God's revelation to us in all of scriptures isn't that we are helped to distinguish who are sinners and who aren't. The fundamental truth that the Scriptures tell us over and over is that we are all sinners (Mary and Our Lord – the new Eve and Adam – excepted). The distinction is between those who acknowledge they are sinners and those who don't. The great saints invariably lament their sinfulness (which sounds like false modesty to us), while Jesus has a word for those who deny their sin: hypocrites. They are the Pharisees of every age who take comfort in finding a worse sinner than them; who are most concerned with enforcing law of any kind.
This is our problem – this is why our Easter joy can seem rather forced. We have lost a sense of sin and its seriousness. We are blinded to it – and that has consequences. The death of Jesus is the definitive way in which God shows us the effects of sin – and all of scripture presumes sin’s existence. If you listen carefully to the words of Mass you'll hear our sin referred to again and again. This is not because God and the Church want to make us feel bad about ourselves or give us low self-esteem, but because this is reality. Meanwhile, we postmoderns are uncomfortable talking about it, admitting it. We'll talk instead about dysfunctional families, personality flaws, addiction, even social sin – but have a hard time looking in the mirror and saying, "I sin." And if we can say, "I sin," we often don't look very hard to find the specifics! When I prepare for confession, I often find it difficult to identify more than just a few obvious sins – and it's not because I'm so holy. I could ask the people I live and work with for help filling in the gaps, but I don’t. It would be like asking people to rip away my fig leaf.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken out so consistently against moral relativism because they have seen that it leads directly and inevitably to a denial of sin's existence.
And what, fundamentally, is sin? It's not just doing what is against God's will. 1 Pt. 18 tells us we have been ransomed from our "futile conduct handed on by our ancestors." Sin is acting in a futile way. We were created for truth, goodness, and beauty. We were made for relationship with God and one another ("It is not good that the man should be alone"). Yet we frustrate these desires by lying, by thinking violence solves problems, whether that violence is abortion, war, or simply the refusal to forgive. We frustrate our need for relationship by valuing things over people, and, in general, desiring that the world revolve around us. And the deeper futility of sin is found in our denial that we do it!
1 Pt. says that we have been ransomed from this futile way through the New Passover of Jesus' death and resurrection. And this ransoming happens in two ways, I believe, and both of them are discovered in Luke’s account of how Cleopas and his companion’s eyes are opened by the breaking and sharing of bread with Jesus (Lk 24:30-32).
Genesis 2 names two trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of which opened the eyes of Adam and Eve to the fact that they had sinned. We often forget the second tree.
There is a symmetry between the snack Adam and Eve have beneath the first tree, and the meal Jesus has with Cleopas and his companion – whom, for the sake of that symmetry, I'd like to think was Cleopas' wife. When Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened because they were offered the fruit of the second tree, the other tree named in the garden of Eden – the tree of Life.
St. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, told the crowds that it was impossible for physical death to hold Jesus in its throes (Acts 2:24). Why not? Simply because Jesus, the new Adam, had never sinned. There was no break in his relationship with his Father, the Author of Life. No “theological death” had ever occurred, so no mortal death could hold him.
But it was this very lack of sin that led him to his death. His holiness was so intolerable because it continually confronted the so-called holy people of his days – the Pharisees, scribes, and priests - with the sinfulness they denied. In their rage – which is our rage whenever we our shown our own sin - they hung him on a tree.
But the resurrection of Jesus reveals the cross as that Tree of Life, and when the two disciples ate that bread become his body, they ate the fruit that hangs from that tree of life, and their eyes were opened – like Adam and Eve's, and they recognized HIM – they saw the marks of his wounds. They were confronted with the effects of their sin – of our sin. But the crucified one had walked with them and not condemned them. He had opened the scriptures to them, and their hearts burned within them because they learned that the scriptures do not just tell us that we are sinners. They reveal that in spite of our sin, God continually pursues us, relentlessly woos us as our Lover, even to the point of living among us and dying for us.
The fruit of the first tree showed us we sin. The fruit of the second tree shows us we are loved anyway – and forgiven. This is the first ransoming from our futile way of life. We can stop the charade of thinking we've got things under control.
But the second effect of Jesus' ransoming is even greater! When we know we are loved by someone – when they've seen us at our worst and still pursue us - we are changed. We respond with a love of our own, in some way. Being loved helps us change our behavior willingly, joyfully – sometimes in ways we would have previously thought impossible. This is why the hearts of the two disciples burned within them; why immediately after Jesus reveals their sin and his love – which is the Father's love – they change their behavior and race back to Jerusalem.
It seems ironic that in order to really be joyful in this Easter season, I have to confront my sinfulness. But then, that is what Lent is all about. If we spend our Lent reflecting upon our lives and how we muck them up with our selfishness and pride, then we’ll be able to take more responsibility for Jesus’ death on the cross – and experience the true joy of forgiveness as we encounter the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.