Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter

Dear Friends,

Today we hear of the very first Mass celebrated after the Resurrection.  It’s celebrated on the evening of Easter Sunday.  There is a Liturgy of the Word as Jesus walks with the two disciples  he explains the Old Testament prophesies that refer to Him and there is the Liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated at the home where the two disciples were going to stay for the night.  Jesus is the celebrant of that first post resurrection Mass just as He is the celebrant of every Mass since that first Easter Sunday. 

Now in our Gospel today we heard that the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus.  They were prevented from recognizing Jesus.  Now it’s not as if they forgot what he looked like, it’s only been three days; rather it was their faith that prevented them from seeing Jesus.  Jesus’ presence was veiled.  They lacked faith.  They lacked faith in three ways.  First, they referred to Jesus as a prophet, not as Messiah or God.  The scandal of the Cross was too much; they had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel.  Second, the news of the empty tomb made no sense to them, just a bunch of hysteria they reasoned.  And third, they did not believe all that the prophets had spoken in the Old Testament, and our Lord rebukes them for that lack of faith, and so he explains. 

For the Liturgy of the Eucharist they go inside and just as he did at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread, he gives the Eucharist.  The exact same verbs are used for the Mass at the Last Supper, for the Mass on the Road to Emmaus, and for every Mass since then.  For two millennia Jesus has taken, blessed, broken and given, given the Eucharist.  And it’s at that moment that the disciples’ eyes were opened to the presence of Jesus, they recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and they recognized him in the Eucharist. 

And then he vanishes from their sight.  He vanishes.  Jesus hides himself until the moment He breaks the bread.  Why?  He wants them to see how He will be present to them from now on.  This is how he will be present to them, in the bread, in the Eucharist.  His risen body, blood, soul, and divinity is now present in the Eucharist.  He will be with us in the Eucharist until the end of time.

I have a story about a man who knew Jesus to be present in the Eucharist, his eyes were open, even though veiled by the appearances of bread and wine this man knew in great faith that Jesus was present in the Eucharist.  His name is Mark Ji Tianxiang, he was known to everyone as Ji.  For many years he was a respectable Christian, raised in a Christian family in 19th-century China. He was a leader in the Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. Later in life after many years of practicing medicine he became very sick with a violent stomach ailment and so he treated himself with opium. Back then in the 19th century it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Ji soon became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.

As his circumstances deteriorated, Ji continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession, refusing to embrace this affliction that had taken control of him. Unfortunately, the priest to whom he confessed (along with nearly everybody in the 19th century) didn’t understand addiction as a disease. Since Ji kept confessing the same sin, the priest thought, that he wasn’t even trying and that Ji had no desire to do better.

After a few years of this, Ji’s priest told him to stop coming back for confession, to stop receiving the Eucharist, to stop until he was serious about quitting the opium.  They just had no understanding about addictions in the 19th century.  Ji just could not quit.   For some, this might have been an invitation to leave the Church in anger or shame, but for all his fallenness, Ji knew himself to be loved by the Father and by the Church. He knew that the Lord wanted his heart. So instead of receiving the Eucharist using the sense of taste, he received instead using the sense of sight.  And how he would stare at the Blessed Sacrament held aloft over the priest’s head at the time of the elevation, taking our Lord in through his eyes, receiving Him through the sense of sight. He’d also sit in the church in the presence of the Eucharist.  He couldn’t stay sober, but he could keep showing up.

And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was unable to receive the sacraments.  God’s grace is not limited to the sacraments, the Mass made all the difference in his life. 

In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against foreigners and Christians, Ji was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his son, six grandchildren, and two daughters-in-law.

Many of those imprisoned with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.

But while Ji was never able to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance. No threat could shake him, no torture make him waver. He was determined to follow the Lord who had never abandoned him.

As Ji and his family were dragged to prison to await their execution, his grandson looked fearfully at him. “Grandpa, where are we going?” he asked. “We’re going home,” came the answer.  

Ji begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been away from the sacraments for decades, he is today a canonized saint.  St. Mark Ji Tianxiang

In our Gospel this morning, beginning with Moses, Jesus interpreted for the disciples all that referred to Him in the Old Testament.   In Genesis, Exodus, the Prophets, and the even in the Psalms Jesus is prefigured.  The Old prefigures the New, or we could say that the New is hidden in the Old and the Old is brought to completion in the New.  The connections between the Old and New is Divine providence, it’s not by chance or coincidence.  It’s part of God’s plan.   The Old and the New are always connected. 

In the Old Testament Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And after eating that fruit, their eyes were opened to their sin.  Today we hear of the disciples who eat the Fruit of the new tree of Life, the Cross, and the fruit is Jesus and after they eat of that fruit their eyes are opened to their redemption.  The eyes of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang were totally open to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  The Mass kept him connected to Jesus.  It made all the difference. 

My prayer for us today is that we always see Jesus in the Eucharist, although veiled under the appearance of Bread and Wine we see Jesus.  We see Jesus. 

Peace and all good,

Fr. Christopher J. Ankley