|Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio, 1602)|
'...he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.'
In the Gospel of Luke, Christ's first resurrection appearance is a surreal affair. It takes place on the road to Emmaus, a small town approximately seven miles north-west of Jerusalem. Two of Jesus' followers, Simon and Cleopas, are heading back to Galilee. Despite reports that some of their friends had seen the Lord, they are desolate--all their hopes have been dashed. They are joined by a mysterious stranger who accompanies them on the road. The stranger admonishes them for doubting that Jesus the Nazarene was the Messiah and King of Israel. He then proceeds to explain the scriptures to them. On reaching Emmaus, Simon and Cleopas invite the stranger to eat dinner with them. The stranger joins them and then takes, blesses, and breaks the bread. They immediately recognize that the stranger is in fact Jesus, who then promptly vanishes from their sight.
The Emmaus story is wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on the mystery of the Eucharist. The host is not unlike a lens or a looking glass through which we are able to catch a glimpse of the Divine. In turn, the Mass can be seen as being about looking: in the Liturgy of the Word, we are taught how and where to look. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the opportunity to look. In eating the body and blood, we enter into a mystical relationship with God. Unlike Simon and Cleopas who were able to see him face-to-face, we are limited to seeing Jesus through a glass, darkly (1 Cor. 13.12). It is to us a foreshadowing of the vision of God we will experience in the next life. Aquinas puts it as such:
O Christ whom now beneath a veil we see,
May what we thirst for soon our portion be,
To gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face,
The vision of thy glory and thy grace.
Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Words: George Herbert
Artists: Sir Thomas Allen & BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
The English Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs are a setting for Baritone, Chorus, and Orchestra of five poems by the seventeenth-century Anglican poet George Herbert. The third song is a setting of what is, according to Seamus Heaney, the greatest poem in the English Language: Love (3).
The poem is a dialogue between Jesus, who is called 'Love' (indeed 'God is Love...'), and a sinful soul approaching the heavenly banquet. After a short discourse, the sinner is assured of the bottomless forgiveness and redemptive power of Love's death on the cross. The sinner then joins the table and eats.
Vaughan Williams' setting is powerful and expressive with the orchestra painting the tone of the two sides of the dialogue. In the final two lines, the chorus begin hum the Gregorian chant O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Banquet) thus highlighting the mystical relationship between the Eucharist and the heavenly feast.
S. George's Day, 2020