By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The first Christian Bible study was held Easter Sunday on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his anonymous traveling companion are wallowing in despair about the death of Jesus, to such an extent that they are fleeing Jerusalem moments after hearing reports that the tomb was empty. Jesus, unrecognized on the road, joins the conversation and steers it toward a specific goal: teaching his downtrodden disciples, then as now, how to read the Bible.
“And he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).
His students, the two disciples, pair that newfound knowledge with the recognition that the one of whom all Scripture speaks is the one who gives them the Eucharist and makes their hearts burn with joyful love (Luke 24:35). Such renewed zeal must be shared; indeed, the two race back to Jerusalem that very evening to relate their experience to their fellow believers.
Fifty days later, Peter delivers his first homily to a stunned audience on the feast of Pentecost, the core of which is an exegesis of Psalm 16 now illuminated by Christ’s resurrection. Luke relates the words of the first among the apostles:
“But God raised [Jesus] up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it. For David says of him, ‘I saw the Lord ever before me, with him at my right hand I shall not disturbed. Therefore, my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted; my flesh, too, will dwell in hope, because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ My brothers and sisters, one can confidently say to you about the patriarch David that he died and was buried, and his tomb is in our midst to this day. But since he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that neither was he abandoned to the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption. God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:24-32).
Peter notes that David, the presumed author of the Psalm, was in fact a prophet – someone who speaks forward a word that can only be literally fulfilled, or claimed, by someone else in the future. In this case, that particular someone walked down the Emmaus road, manifested himself “in the breaking of bread,” and continues to speak the words of everlasting life to all who meet him in the Scriptures and the Eucharist.
In its original setting, Psalm 16 appears to be a bold confession of faith in the Lord and a firm rejection of idolatrous rituals for other gods, some of whom might even have demanded human sacrifice. The author of this Psalm expresses his confidence that the God of Israel will rescue him from the clutches of death if he perseveres in the faith of his people. In those words written hundreds of years before Jesus, Peter perceives the living word waiting to be revealed and fulfilled in the risen Lord.
A parallel sense of “the fullness of joy in your presence” (Psalm 16:11) brought new life to me when I decided to become a Cistercian monk. During a Holy Week retreat at the Abbey, a young Brother Joseph, now my confrere, gave a talk with the title “Dying and Rising in the Monastic Life.” He quoted Psalm 16 as an example of the pattern God employs in bringing life out of apparent death and defeat. The final words of Psalm 16 formed an incessant chorus in my head as I left the conference, and it was effectively in response to those words that I gave my initial (hesitant) assent to the half-baked idea that God wanted me to join the monastery. The graced work of a Psalm, as Peter’s sermon and my own vocational insight make clear, is never finished!
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.