Years later the wife of Cleopas would still recount the events of that third day. I visited her many times, Theophilis, in her home in Emmaus. We would sit together at her table. Only after we had drained a cup and picked the crumbs from our plates would she begin her story. I remember one afternoon vividly. Her head tilted back and her eyes closed and in a hushed and excited tone she started as always, “It was the same day the Lord rose–yes, the Lord’s Day. I remember it, as if it were yesterday”. As she spoke I listened for the Spirit’s voice and we both savoured the goodness of God.
She continued, “Cleopas and I had left Jerusalem behind, and with heavy hearts we journeyed the way to Emmaus. Indeed it was the longest seven miles of my life. The suffering and crucifixion of the Lord had destroyed almost all our expectations. We were devastated. It was as if our hearts were ancient ruins reduced to rubble by a cruel and vindictive enemy.
We were discussing all the events of the past week and trying to make sense of what had happened earlier that morning. That’s when Jesus fell in step with us. Yes, along that road of fear and uncertainty and despair Jesus himself was with us. Forgive me, I cannot fully explain, but we did not recognise him–it was not within our grasp at that moment. But Jesus humbly and gracefully restored our hearts, as if brick by brick he was patiently rebuilding what had come crumbling down.
He asked us plainly, ‘What’s the matter? Is there something you cannot reconcile?’
Well, we stopped dead in our tracks and this stranger turned to face us. We were speechless in our grief and unable to hide it or lift our gaze. At last my husband spoke, exasperated, ‘Have you not seen? Have you not heard? Where have you been these past days–dead in a cave? Do you not know of the deeds hereabouts and now of the wrong that cannot be put right?’
Jesus inquired, ‘What deeds? What wrongs that cannot be put right?’
And so Cleopas poured out all his frustration and simmering anger. ‘Oh! Only about Jesus, the miracle worker from Nazareth! Only the one who spoke with the authority of Moses and with the faith of Abraham! He was the One–or so we thought. Our chief priests and our rulers were given the power to free him or have him executed. They chose to put him to death. And they crucified him, like a common criminal! He was supposed to be the One who would make Israel powerful, rich and ruling. But what kind of a kingdom has a crucified king? What’s more, the period of mourning is over. It’s all over; finished. It came to nothing. He came to nothing.’
Cleopas continued, ‘And then some of the women in our group bewildered us. They went to the tomb at dawn but his body was gone, it had completely vanished! Then there was this complete nonsense about angels who claimed he was alive. Then some of our companions went to see the tomb and found it empty. The women had gotten that right. But he did not appear to our companions in flesh and blood either! Now you know why we cannot bring ourselves to believe.’ With that Cleopas began to move off.
But this stranger implored us, ‘Can you hear the words coming out of your mouth– it’s all foolish. Why so quick to gaze in your own little well of understanding and so slow to accept the mighty geyser that is the wisdom of the prophets! Listen, here’s the hard truth of it–to truly reveal God, the Christ had to suffer these things before he could go beyond the veil.’
So he led us down that road and spoke long into the afternoon. We listened intently and his words began to form a beautiful sculpture of the kingdom of God. I wasn’t aware at the time but walking along that dusty road with the stranger, God began to reveal this marvellous beauty–worked upon since the creation of everything we can see and not see. And every truth was another brick of grace. That day, our hearts began to be transfigured. God was going to reveal great beauty and goodness in us. How much more is God’s Anointed One than what we can see?!
When we came near to the village it was late in the day. After we had refreshed ourselves our friend made to leave us there at the well. Cleopas and I looked at each other–clearly we were not ready for our companion to leave. We persuaded him, ‘You must stay with us! Look, night is nearly upon us. See this day out with us.’ So he came to our home.”
The old woman shifted in her chair, her eyes lightly closed, recalling the events. “We sat at this very table and I carefully unwrapped what little bread I had brought on the journey–we really only had enough for two. I gave this humble meal to our guest. Smiling, he took it from me, looked at us one to another while thanking God for this abundant provision.”
The old woman’s eyes snapped open, alive and dancing, “The last thing I saw after he tore the bread into three was his open hands–I saw the nail marks in his hands! Cleopas and I stared at each other, astonished. We turned back and Jesus was gone from our sight. We sat there disbelieving our eyes but faith rushed up from our spirits, overflowing. I remember embracing my husband and his joyful words, ‘Weren’t we blessed on the road this day. For in our grief and confusion the Lord gave us the faith of Jesus. Was his presence not like that of the fire and cloud that went before our ancestors, as they came out the cruelty of Egypt into the uncertainty of the desert?! Did his words not seem to you like the bellows that flamed the kilns of our very spirits?!’
We got up at once and made for Jerusalem. We knew we must tell the other followers. This gift wasn’t just for us–it was to be shared. Despite the danger on the road we travelled at night because we knew the presence of God was with us. We found the eleven and all those gathered there. They said to us, ‘This is really happening! The Lord has risen, Simon has seen him!’ Then we recounted all that had happened on the way to Emmaus, especially the moment when we recognized Jesus and his open hands.
Just as we were discussing all this, right there in front of us–Jesus! The very One– living and breathing–giving us his peace! Stunned and cowering silence came over us. He knew our fear and disbelief and set about calmly confronting our doubts. ‘Are you disturbed at the sight of me? Why? Your faces say I cannot be alive, but only an apparition brought on by your grief. Settle your thoughts that this is impossible. Look, here I am–flesh and blood, healed and whole. Take hold of me and know the truth for yourselves.’
At this Jesus bent low on one knee and opened his hands. Everyone could see the scars of crucifixion. It’s difficult to describe the mixture of jaw dropping surprise and rising joy in that room.
Jesus asked, ‘What food can you give me?’ Someone handed him a piece of salted fish out of the dwindling supply. He ate it right in front of us–this was getting more and more real. Then he told us emphatically, ‘I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: every last word about me recorded in the Law given to Moses, detailed by the prophets and sung in every spiritual song you know, must be fully satisfied.’
Then he began to illuminate our whole understanding of the scriptures, just as he had on the way to Emmaus. He told us, ‘This is etched in stone and papyrus: The Christ must suffer, die, and rise from the dead on the third day. Yet the work is not finished there–all the scattered nations and peoples will hear God calling them to heed his voice and walk in His forgiveness. The Name and Presence of God will accomplish this. It all begins here in Jerusalem. It all begins with you, you who have seen with your own eyes. Soon you will see by my faith, that will be your spiritual sight, and you will rely on my Father as I have done. I’m not cutting you off but giving you every abundance of my Father’s house. Remain in the city until the Spirit of God makes all these things powerfully visible–yes, wait for your garments of praise.’”
The old woman sat back in her chair somewhat spent at the retelling of her story. She continued, “I could forgive you for thinking, ‘How will this end?’ for that is precisely one of the questions we had. But Jesus had prepared us well for his departure from our physical sight. When the time came he led us out near Bethany. There, in front of us, he stretched out his arms and while giving us his blessing vanished beyond the veil. There were a few moments of deep reverence and then overwhelming joy that could not be contained. We praised God all the way back to Jerusalem and for days–inside and outside the temple.”
I’ll never forget how she would look at me and inquire playfully, “You have heard about the way of Emmaus. Now, are you ready for God to act?”