The sun is already past its highest point in the sky by the time we set out. The air is hot and dusty, and I can feel the heat of the road through my sandals. Cleopas and I had meant to set out earlier, but the morning had been… strange.
Scenes from the last week flash through my head.
Palm branches waving as voices shout Hosanna! Tables of money changers flipping over in the temple as the teacher declares, “My house will be a house of prayer!” Crowds following us as we follow the teacher. Quiet moments with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, as he teaches us strange and mysterious things.
Celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus lifts up a piece of bread, breaks it, and says, “This is my body, broken for you.” A cup. “This is my blood, poured out for you.”
Soldiers in the garden. Pilate, washing his hands. The nails. The cross. A final spear thrust from a soldier; blood and water pouring out. Darkness descending over the land.
Darkness in our hearts.
For quite a while, the only sound is the plodding of our footsteps. Cleopas and I are in no hurry. Certainly, we have been away from Emmaus for longer than we intended; the events in Jerusalem three days ago kept us beyond the Passover. And then suddenly it was the arrival of the Sabbath and we could not travel home. I think back to the Sabbath prayer. Peter’s hands shaking as he lit the candles. His voice shaking, too, as he sang the blessing. “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam…” Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe…
I hold so firmly to this conviction, that Yahweh is indeed ruler of the universe. But I no longer hold any certainty over what his plans may be. Last Sunday crowds gathered around us to shout Hosanna and it seemed as if the whole nation recognized Jesus as the Messiah that Yahweh finally sent to redeem us… Now those hopes have died within us.
Finally I cannot stand the silence any longer. “Cleopas, what can God be doing?” I ask. My voice betrays my desperation. “Surely Jesus was the Messiah… We saw how he healed people, taught with authority, revealed the scriptures to us. But now I do not understand what God intends for us to do. Our teacher… our friend. He is gone.”
Cleopas’s first response is a long sigh. “I too wonder what Yahweh is doing. And what of the stories of the women this morning? Mary, Joanna, Mary Magdalene. What can they have meant by their words?”
A fierce urge to defend my friends rises up in me, but I too was confused when they returned this morning as we were preparing to leave. They told us of going to the tomb to prepare our friend’s body for burial. Instead, they found the tomb empty except for two men, filled with glowing light, asking them why they expected to find Jesus. These women are my friends. I know they would not make up a story. Could they have imagined it? None of us have slept much in days. Could they all have imagined the same thing though?
Cleopas and I are talking through the details of their story, when suddenly our footsteps are not the only thing I hear. I turn and see a fellow traveller catching up behind us. He is alone, without any provisions. Probably, like us, he had attended a Passover feast in Jerusalem.
I move toward Cleopas on the path, leaving ample room for him to pass us by and continue on his way. Instead, as he catches up to us, he falls into step with us.
“What an intense conversation you were having,” he says. “I am interrupting.”
I sort of smile to indicate that it is okay. I don’t need to have this conversation with a stranger, though. Cleopas must feel the same. He only nods his head.
“What were you talking about?” our fellow pilgrim asks.
I’m shocked that he has no idea. What must the whole nation be talking about by now? “Have you not been in Jerusalem as we were?” I ask, astonished. “You must be the only one who has not heard about the events there these past days.” He doesn’t reply.
“About Jesus of Nazareth!” I explain. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people! We know he was sent by God, but the chief priests and rulers had him sentenced to death and he was crucified. We had… “ My voice breaks. “We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.” Suddenly it’s difficult for me to see through the tears in my eyes. My heart is breaking like my voice, and I cannot continue talking.
Cleopas takes over as we move steadily down the road. “Something else happened that we do not understand. This morning, some of our friends went to take care of the teacher’s body since there was no time before Sabbath began. They went to the tomb early this morning but when they returned, they told us they had not found the body but instead saw a vision of angels!”
Our fellow traveller pauses in his walking and turns, looking first at me, then Cleopas. “Do you not remember all that the prophets have spoken?” he asks, his voice intense. “As Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.’ Or do you not remember the words of the prophet Zecharaiah? ‘Rejoice greatly, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem. Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey.’ And the prophet Isaiah foretold…”
Mile by mile, this fellow pilgrim goes through the scriptures with us, starting with Moses and working through the prophets. My heart begins to warm again, a feeling I have not had since before the teacher died. The same feeling I used to have when he would teach. It is not much, like the first lightening of the sky before dawn. But it is noticeable, especially given the darkness of my heart these last three days.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam… Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe. I think again of the words that start our Jewish prayers, words that just a few days ago were so hard to say. But this man has explained the scriptures in a way that make me see how the last few days’ events were God’s plan from long ago. A plan I do not fully understand, but a plan nonetheless.
All too soon, we crest the final hill and see our village laid out in the valley below us. Our fellow pilgrim continues in his explanation all the way to the door of our house, and then turns to walk on. “Do not go!” I blurt.
“Indeed, do not continue your journey tonight,” Cleopas echos. “It is almost evening. Stay, break bread with us, and rest here tonight. The day is almost over.”
Cleopas and our visitor sit at the table while I gather a humble meal for us. I join them, setting down bread and then sitting down carefully, my tired body groaning in protest after the day’s long walk.
Cleopas invites our guest to pray the blessing over our food. He lifts up the bread, breaks it, and gives thanks. “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lehem min ha-aretz.” Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
And suddenly I think of other hands lifting up bread. “This is my body, broken for you.” Hands lifting up bread and giving thanks, then feeding a hillside full of people. A strange energy shifts in the room. In my heart. I look from the hands holding the bread to the man’s face. I know this man. I know this man. But how can this be…. I study his face. Is it disappointment I see, that we did not recognize him? Is it annoyance that he had to explain to us again things that he had taught?
No. It is a face shining with love.
My body, suddenly tired no longer, jumps up from the table. And in that moment, Jesus disappears. Cleopas and I look at each other with amazement. Our teacher, our friend, the Messiah… alive! Tears fill my eyes anew, but these are tears of joy.
“But how? How did we not know him?” I exclaim. “And yet… Cleopas, surely my heart was burning within me while he revealed the scriptures to us!”
Cleopas nods his head. “ How could we not have known our Lord? And yet, as you say, it was my heart that began to know him as he taught us.”
“But it was in the breaking of bread that my eyes knew him… just as he broke bread with us before.”
Cleopas rises from the table. “We must go tell the others!” he declares.
“We must!” I agree. “But first…” I gesture to the bread. Cleopas and I each pick up a piece of the bread left behind at the spot where Jesus was sitting. This is my body, broken for you, I think again. We eat. Tears stream down my face. I do not understand all of this yet. But I say again, as we eat, “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam…” Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe…