The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once noted
that life could only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.
Of course, this is not something
that we need a philosopher to tell us.
The passage of time gives us a perspective on our lives
that allows us to understand past events
better than we did when we were going through them.
I am pretty sure that my fifty-two-year-old self
understands my twenty-two-year-old self
better than my twenty-two-year-old self did.
My twenty-two-year-old self had no idea
what people and events were truly significant in my life.
I thought that the girl who had just broken up with me
was the most important person in my life,
little realizing that the Jesuit priest who,
in casual conversation,
suggested a year of volunteer service after college
would end up being the occasion
of my moving to Texas
where I met my future wife,
which led to three children,
and a job in Baltimore,
and me standing here today,
in this church,
speaking to all of you.
What seemed at the time
like a casual conversation
with a near-stranger
was a key turning point in my life.
When I look back,
I tell the story of my twenty-two-year-old self
in a way that my twenty-two-year-old self never could,
a way that is not simply different, but truer,
because life can only be understood backwards.
We see this in the story
of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
It is only after Christ had shown himself to them
in the breaking of the bread
that they could know the true significance
of the stranger who had met them on the road.
He had walked with them,
listening to them recount a story
that they were not yet in a position to understand,
the story of the death of Jesus
and the strange reports of his empty tomb.
Looking back they say,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way
and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Looking back they say,
“The Lord is truly risen!”
But as they walked with him,
they had no idea.
What they come to identify
as their hearts burning within them
was likely in the moment simply a vague feeling
that they could not yet understand or name.
They only begin to understand this event,
to know the significance of this person,
in looking backwards
from the perspective of their eyes
being opened to the risen Jesus
in the breaking of the bread.
Of course, even when we look backwards,
we are still living forwards.
Lest my fifty-two-year-old self
should begin to get too smug,
thinking how much more I know
than my twenty-two-year-old self,
I must remember that at some point
I will be looking back on this day
and understanding it far better than I do now.
Kierkegaard wrote that,
“life at any given moment
cannot really ever be fully understood;
exactly because there is no single moment
where time stops completely” (Journals 1843).
The self that is trying to understand backwards
is the same self that is living forwards, on the road,
and so we must constantly re-tell the story of our lives.
If my fifty-two-year-old self
better understands my twenty-two-year-old self,
then presumably my eighty-two-year-old self,
should God grant me that many years,
will better understand both of those selves
and doubtless tell the story of my life
differently than I do now.
Who is the stranger walking beside me
on the road this day
who will, looking backward,
prove to be the key to the story of my life?
Living forward, on the road,
I never truly understand myself
because I have not yet reached
the end of the journey;
I am not yet in God’s kingdom,
where time shall be fulfilled.
Yet that is not entirely true.
In the story of Emmaus there comes a moment
when their eyes are opened
and they see the truth
of the story they have been living.
While he is with them at table,
he takes bread,
says the blessing,
and gives it to them.
In that moment, the kingdom of God
makes itself present to them
through a sacramental sign.
And for us too, in our Eucharist,
Jesus gives us the story of our lives,
and the story of our world,
looking, as it were, backward from the Kingdom.
We know him in the breaking of the bread,
but we also come know ourselves –
or at least we catch a glimpse
of what our lives might truly mean.
The bread of himself that Christ breaks and gives to us
is a foretaste of that heavenly supper of the Lamb,
where one day, our long journey ended,
we will feast and tell tales:
we shall tell the story of our lives
as we will then see them,
bathed in the light of resurrection:
a story with unanticipated plot twists
and unexpected heroes.
But even now,
at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that final story,
the story of the stranger
who has walked beside us,
the story of words
that made our hearts burn within us,
the story of the one
who is life itself,
accompanying us through the valley of death.
On this day, at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that day
when, as St. Augustine says,
“we shall rest and see,
see and love,
love and praise” (Civ. Dei 22.30).