Saint James Fordham • Easter 3A • Tobias Haller BSGLast week I spoke about signs, the tools God uses to communicate the message of salvation to us mortals. We heard the story of Noah and the flood, and how God placed the sign of the rainbow in the sky, a sign of the covenant promise never to destroy the world by a flood, and as a kind of certification that Noah and his family had indeed been saved. And I spoke as well of the imperishable sign of the cross, the testimony of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ’s saving and atoning death, and we heard the Gospel of the empty tomb, and the wounded hands of Jesus, signs of the truth of his resurrection from the dead, signs sure enough to convince even Doubting Thomas that victory had been won.
...He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.+
The reason that God gives us signs is in part because we are so likely to miss the message of salvation in the midst of our noisy and distracting world, with its many temptations and diversions. We are often, as our Lord said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “foolish and slow of heart to believe.” And so God, like a patient teacher, continues to instruct us and give us signs.
Now, some of these signs are miraculous in the old-fashioned sense, miracles that astonish and amaze us. We’ve all heard stories of miraculous healing, of people given up for dead who somehow recover, to the amazement of the doctors and everyone else. And these signs from God renew our faith. But let us never forget that it is the renewal of our faith, and that alone, which makes a miracle a miracle: not that it is a magic trick whereby the impossible appears to be done. The true miracle lies in the fact that it produces faith, it assures our trust, it renews our hope in and knowledge of a loving God who is with us and for us. The importance of miracles does not lie in their defying the laws of science and reason, but in their working upon the human spirit, leading us into all truth, revealing God’s presence to the eye of faith.
One example of this are the miraculous tortillas that occasionally appear on the griddles of devout women in Mexico and Central America. Now this is not manna from heaven; it isn’t that the tortillas suddenly appear from nowhere! It is that cooked into the surface of the tortilla, scorched by the griddle, is the appearance of the likeness of Christ. I’ve seen photographs of these miraculous tortillas, dried and preserved in cigar boxes lined with colorful wrapping paper, adorned with plastic flowers, and reverently placed on the shelves of the homes blessed with this miraculous visitation.
And of course one could say that all of this has a scientific explanation: that the human brain, with its need and ability to read patterns into chaos, can see the likeness of Christ in the random scorches on the surface of the flatbread, much as one can lie on one’s back and look up at clouds and see them forming ships at sea, castles in Spain, or an entire zoo of fluffy animals. Yet even though the miraculous tortilla has a fairly simple explanation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle — for it brings faith, and it is faith, not magic, that is truly miraculous — it is the true reason miracles happen in the first place.
For the real miracle isn’t that the face of Christ appears on a tortilla; the real miracle is that anyone could believe in a God who would be interested in having his face appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is to believe that God would be interested in surprising and blessing a poor Mexican housewife while she labors over a hot griddle at the end of a long day; that God would be interested in the wanderings of an insignificant tribe of desert nomads, or the political affairs of a shepherd-boy turned king; that God who created the universe would be bothered to take the time to visit a young woman at her prayers and chose her to be the mother of his incarnate Son; and then chose to have her bear him in a barn; that God would, in that Son, live and die as one of us, and be raised from the dead, and then — the miracles continue — not immediately ascend to heaven, but continue those prosaic little field trips, having breakfast by the seaside, taking a walk with two disciples, and finally, breaking bread with them in a little country inn on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
For the bread of Emmaus is no less a revelation of the presence of Christ than the tortilla of Guadalajara. It is in that simple act of breaking bread, a common every-day kitchen-table act, that God Almighty chooses to be made known — and that is a miracle if ever there was one.
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And yet… and yet. How slow we are to realize the miracle as it happens! We look for the technicolor, hi-res special effects of the apocalypse, while God is revealed in the simple white-bread world around us. How slow of heart, like the disciples who walked that road with Jesus, how slow to believe we are when we miss the presence of God with us, walking at our side and opening the Scripture to us, breaking the bread with us, the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest.
Jesus said, “How foolish you are! How slow to believe the prophets!” And with this simple exclamation he echoes God’s never-failing amazement with his children Israel. “When will you get it?” God seems to say. “How many seas must be parted, how many pillars of fire, how much water from how many stones, how much bread from heaven, how many crucifixions, how many risings from the dead until you understand how much I love you?” (God is patient, but often needs to speak to his people this way.) Just as Jesus walked with the disciples on that rural roadway, so God had accompanied the children of Israel in their wandering in the wilderness, and brooded in their midst in the Temple all those years. The prophets, from Moses to Mary Magdalene, had been discounted, ridiculed, and disbelieved by the very people who most needed to hear the news. Yet God did not abandon these stubborn children. God loved them too much for that; God loves us too much for that.
And that is the greatest miracle, the greatest faith: God’s faith in his children, God’s faith in us. It is to that faith, to God’s faith in us, that God doesn’t give up on us, to which God bids us open our eyes! There is always time for another message, even a message from God's own Son, risen from the dead.
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The walkers reach the little village, and Jesus makes as if to continue on his way. He is stopped by their appeal, “Stay with us.” (This is the appeal that God always hopes for and can never and will never resist. In God’s wonderful and miraculous world the Creator waits and wants to be invited by the creature. The architect and builder of the house waits to be welcomed as a guest. The Lord and Master serves the servants.)
So at dinner, bread is broken; eyes are opened, memories and hearts are stirred. The miracle of broken bread, a simple sign, proclaims God’s presence in a flash, as quickly as he disappears. For as quickly as he came, he vanishes from their sight— perhaps like the Cheshire Cat, leaving a smile lingering in the air for a moment. As he had said to them before his Passion, “A little while you will not see me, and then a little while you will...” God has always loved to play peek-a-boo with his children.
And so still God does. So still we children of our loving God gather week by week to hear the apostles’ teaching and to share in their fellowship, breaking the bread as they did long ago, in a set of actions extended now through these two millennia of time, and through space to the ends of the world; we gather as they did to pray and break the bread, looking for the miraculous presence of God not in the surface of a scorched tortilla, but in the inward corners of our hearts, warmed by the word of God; in the joyful expression of each others’ faces as we pass the peace and share the broken bread, the wine-filled cup. And this is our miracle, our eye-opening, heart-warming miracle, leading to a sure and certain and unshakeable faith, for in this sharing of the word and breaking of the bread the risen Lord of Glory has deigned to be our guest, deigned to be held in the palms of our hands, and enshrined within our hearts. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! +