The First Mass
To see our Lord Jesus Christ appear in glory, we must await the end of history, when he will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is why when he appears after Easter, in what is called his glorified body, Christ bore no aspect of the triumphant: Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought him an ordinary traveler.
But here, represented in the inn at Emmaus, Rembrandt goes further: he doesn’t fear to show us a Jesus yet too human to be the risen One, his face distraught, like a Christ still undergoing his Passion. Thus the Painter of Light illustrates the words of Blaise Pascal, for whom “Christ will be in his death throes until the end of the world.” And it is true: Christ will be in agony as long as evil abounds, and so he is at each Mass—the source and summit of Christian life—making present and active, though without bloodshed, his supreme sacrifice on the cross for the glory of God and the salvation of creation.
On the altar, the Victim is truly the same as on the cross, just as the minister who offers the sacrifice is also the same. For the priest does not consecrate in his own person, but in persona Christi: he does not say, “This is Christ’s Body,” but, “This is my Body….”
Here Rembrandt represents, as it were, the first Mass—the first time in history the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice was celebrated by Christ himself—after, it must be stressed, a powerful Liturgy of the Word expounded along the road. At the inn of Emmaus, Rembrandt captures Jesus at the very moment he speaks the words and makes the gestures of the Institution: “On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven, to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples….”
Pierre-Marie Dumont
Christ at Emmaüs (detail), Rembrandt (1606–1669), Louvre Museum, Paris, France. © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-GP / Philippe Fuzeau.