Third Sunday of Easter
If our hope is even remotely true, what will the resurrected body be like? Assuming the gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances offer clues, what little we learn there might best be summed up as “different, but the same.” Mary found Jesus so changed, at least from a distance, that she mistook him for a gardener. Thomas learns that even if doors can’t stop Jesus, the scars of his execution abide. Cleopas and his companion are clueless until they recognize Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.”
For all of those – including me – who come after the original disciples and know no Jesus except as the resurrected Christ, there’s a particular sweetness in today’s gospel, as there was in last week’s Thomas story, where we heard, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) It’s helpful to hear from those who’ve gone before that discerning Jesus in this world doesn’t come naturally, but as second nature, formed over time by grace and shared practice. But even that sweetness, passed too often and too formulaically through frail human hands, may grow stale or leave one feeling like they’d devoured too much Easter candy.
I trust that, even after years of homilies and essays on the subject, there’s much, much more for me to learn from today’s gospel seen through the lens of Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. I, however, was raised American in the late twentieth century, so I have the attention span of a Mayfly who’s misplaced his ADHD meds. I require novelty, something different enough to keep me engaged.
Perhaps it’s time, then, to ask what it would mean to break the bread and refuse to know the risen Christ? God knows I’ve been there.
Paul shows us in 1 Corinthians 11, where some are fed and others go hungry at the Eucharistic celebration. Paul has no patience with this factionalism and inhospitality, warning, “… all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. “(v. 29-30)
I like to believe Dante had this passage in mind when he, in his Divine Comedy, imagines what lies beyond death. In his poetic rendering of hell’s frozen bottom, where the treacherously fraudulent are buried in the ice (the worst completely so, sealing them in perpetual solitude), Dante, the pilgrim, meets a pair doomed to diabolical communion, Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, two prominent figures of medieval Pisa. With only their heads exposed, Ugolino gnaws Ruggieri’s skull, “as a man with hungry teeth tears into bread.” They’ve carried their political and family grudges with them into eternity.
It’s important to point out here that the damned in Dante’s Inferno are rarely punished by fire, though they are all punished by receiving – forever – what their disordered desire craved. Unrooted in Divine will, endlessly satisfied desire grows loathsome. Instead of endless transformation, the damned remain the self they always wanted to be, with no hope of escape.
Ugolino turns from his gruesome and eternal supper only long enough to tell Dante how his long, ugly feud with Ruggieri led to Ugolino’s arrest and imprisonment, along with his sons, in a tower, where they were then starved to death. Along the way, Ugolino reveals himself as a colossus of self-pity and vengeance, speaking only of how he suffered, ignoring the pain his actions caused others.
In a masterpiece of dramatic irony, Dante, the poet, fills Ugolino’s story with images of the Last Supper and other gospel passages: an accomplished betrayer betrayed, one who looks to his children yet sees only himself, who turns to stone when his sons are hungry for bread, and who rejects an offer to eat his son’s flesh, but then, perhaps, does so after all. Frozen for eternity together, Ugolino and Ruggieri, two masters of fraud, are joined bodily “with every bestial bite,” eternal companions (from Latin, com-panis, “with bread.”).
Though the encounter in hell is fictional, Ugolino and Ruggieri were historical figures well known to Dante’s original readers. More to the point, they were thirteenth century Italian Catholics – one of them an archbishop! – exposed throughout their lifetimes to scripture, liturgy, Eucharist, and community. Except for their century, country, and public crimes, they’re not so different from us.
I point this out neither to rain on anyone’s post-Easter parade or to call attention to medieval hypocrites so we can feel better about our (we like to imagine) less conspicuous failures. If your church breaks the bread so well that everyone, every time, discerns the body and recognizes Christ in every neighbor, please share your secret and pray for those of us – like me – who sometimes leave the liturgy with hearts strangely cooled.
Unlike Mary, Thomas, or Cleopas and his companion, none of us has ever known the historical Jesus, yet we are in better position then these to understand who he was. We have the gospels, including Matthew 25, teaching us to find Jesus in everyone we meet, especially the least. We have the witness of the saints, who have shown us with their lives and deaths how to put on Christ. We have liturgy, Eucharist, and shared practices to form us into God’s people. Yet we are often more clueless than Cleopas, and with less humility and distress. We like to imagine all this churchy activity has made us different when, in fact, we are nearly the same as when we started. Perhaps we’re not as bad as Ugolino and Ruggieri, but neither of them thought they were particularly blameworthy, either. I suspect the difference between my blindness and theirs is a matter of degree, not kind.
For most of us, the practices of Easter joy are not yet second nature. It is good, then, to know that our God is patient, slow to anger, rich in kindness and mercy. Knowing Christ in the breaking of the bread can take a lifetime, perhaps longer.
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy not to smugly imagine the sufferings of the sinful dead but that we, the living, might conform our lives to Christ. How much more is that the case with the gospels, calling us to transforming conversion? Two weeks into Easter is no time for smugness or complacency. There’s yet time for us to be as astonished by the risen Lord as Cleopas and his companion. There’s time to, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.” We still have much to learn in and by breaking bread with one another.
(For a complete view of the Caravaggio painting from which the above visual detail is excerpted, see here.)