The early Christian community consisted mostly of Jews. The old time Jews from Judea and Galilee, like the apostles, Martha, Mary, Lazarus, the women who supported Jesus from their means, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, made up much of that first society.
Then there were the newer Jews from the Greek-speaking world like the deacon Stephen and his fellow workers who cared for the Jews from the wider Mediterranean world. As Christians with a Jewish background these early believers continued to have great esteem for the temple and the sacred liturgies that took place there. The Acts of Apostles indicates that Peter and John, for example, went to the temple regularly for the daily prayer and rituals that were offered there.
The formal religious life of these apostles and of the other first converts continued to focus on the temple as it had for their entire lives and as it would almost until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. So the temple, the Torah, the synagogue, the daily prayers and all those holy actions that made up Jewish life before Christ continued for a few decades to contribute to the lives of Jewish Christians after Christ.
But of course there was one important element of the new Christian life that did not involve the Temple or the synagogue at all. The Eucharist from the start was not celebrated in any familiar Jewish context. Rather the Eucharist was celebrated in the homes of the first Christian community. This rupture from ancient Jewish tradition was a clear statement that the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ made present daily through his sacramental body and blood was a new revelation, a new economy, in fact, a new covenant.
The apostles and the early Christians certainly respected the temple. They clearly appreciated the biblical reflections offered on the Sabbath in their local synagogues. And they saw the value of the God-centered routine that characterized Jewish life in ancient Israel. Yet they also realized early in the life of the new church that the Eucharist was exceptional, distinctive, unique.
The early Christians especially treasured the Eucharist. The repeated celebration of this sacrificial meal week after week and eventually day after day was the only way to do justice to it. The early Christian community knew intuitively that in celebrating this communal meal and sacrificial rite they would truly come to know once again the Jesus Christ that they had known and loved during his earthly lifetime. In fact the Eucharist would mean knowing Jesus on a deeper level than the first believers had ever known the Savior during his public life. In the Eucharist the first Christians would truly come to know Jesus in the breaking of bread and in the communal reflection on the Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. From the first years, the Eucharist was the heart of the church.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage, the familiar and folksy tale of the two despondent disciples on their way to Emmaus highlights how vividly the sacramental offering of Christ’s body and blood draws the believer closer to an appreciation of Christ risen and still present. The disciples’ heartfelt appreciation of the Scriptural teaching Christ offered them along the way is a clear Lucan allusion to what is today called the Service of the Word. From then until now, the Scriptures are proclaimed and explained in the light of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. The whole Bible truly bears witness to the risen Christ.
The biblical lesson was happily followed by the breaking of bread through which the two disciples came to perceive Christ present to them once again – resurrected and regenerated. The Eucharist does not merely lead to Christ as the temple rituals and Jewish practices did. The Eucharist realizes Christ, making him and his saving actions truly present to believers down through the ages. Like the disciples, modern man can come to know Christ “in the breaking of bread” and in a renewed reflection on the Scriptures – a perfect description of the Mass.
It was no doubt difficult for the early Jewish converts to leave behind the temple and the synagogue services. But the gift of the Eucharist more than compensated them. They forsook prophecy for the realty.