Imagine the couple fleeing Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. They’ve not experienced “Good Friday” as we do, already sending Easter cards and preparing for the celebratory feast. They’re engulfed in loss, grief, and fear.
We encounter them a few days after Jesus’ gruesome death as they’re walking to Emmaus. If Cleopas is the same person written about in John 19:25, it’s probable that the two people walking to Emmaus are Cleopas and his wife Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross with other women who loved Jesus. Remember the scene they’ve witnessed.
On the open road the couple would be leery of drawing attention to themselves. They might wonder if a stranger on the road were an enemy of the followers of Jesus, the recently executed criminal. In their fear they might draw close to one another, keeping others at a distance. It seems that Jesus walked near them for a while in silence. They acclimated to his non-threatening presence.
Then—astoundingly—Jesus drew attention to what’s going on in their hearts and minds. He’s got the big story to tell, but he helped them notice their inner lives before telling them about himself. He didn’t say, “Ta-dum! Here I am!” Rather, Jesus, essentially, asks, “What’s up?”
Now on that same day two of them were journeying to a village called Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they talked to each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
Jesus paid attention to what was occupying this couple. Remember what he said to Martha in Bethany? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Lk. 10:38). This couple on the road were extremely worried and upset. Notice how Jesus addressed them and what happened then.
Jesus paid attention to their experience and entered into what is real for them. They began to integrate as they stood still. They moved from fretting to feeling. The text says that “They stood still, looking sad.” This stopping is the first movement toward hesychia, stillness of heart, an ancient form of Christian prayer.
Then Jesus drew them out again:
He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
They do sound like a couple, don’t they? “This happened.” “Yes, but….” “Moreover….” They trusted Jesus enough to pour out their thoughts, even though doing so could be dangerous. They had been caught up in exterior worrying noise (various theories of what has happened with Jesus) and interior noise (fear, distraction). They’ve allowed doubts and fears to turn them away from the place of resurrection and their community of faith.
Part of hesychia is nepsis (vigilance) which involves guarding the heart against fears and doubts that turn one away from God. Jesus helped Mary and Cleopas get in touch with what was deepest in their hearts, to notice the interior place where the desire to embrace miracle mingled with realistic grief. He helped them move beyond what was preventing them from turning toward him (“their eyes were kept from recognizing him”).
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
Jesus addressed their minds and hearts. “Foolish” here means not understanding with the mind. In Hebrew and Christian Scriptures the fool is the one who is not seeking God. These two people abandoned that quest in their state of fear and confusion. They were running away, and Cleopas, the concerned husband, hustled his wife away from danger and the place where she witnessed a horrible execution. Their hearts were slow, traumatized by Jesus’ brutal execution.
Cleopas and Mary were caught up in a ruminating theological debate. Jesus generously came alongside them where they were, just as he helped Peter catch fish and allowed Thomas to touch his wounds. He always comes to where the other is.
Perhaps you remember a time of trauma in your own life. Your mind went round and round, searching for understanding while your feelings were muted, frozen. I experienced that when our first son was born and hovered between life and death for many weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. I would read a page in a book over and over again, unable to take anything in—foolish. I felt paralyzed emotionally, longing to hope, fearing the magnitude of the grief—slow of heart. People came alongside my husband and me. The most helpful ones didn’t try to offer answers or false comforts. They offered their accompanying love as they walked beside us.
After listening to the couple at length, Jesus spoke of his suffering and glory. Both are true. His resurrection does not catapult these people into the pre-crucifixion place of happy days with the human Jesus. No, the terrible suffering is true for him and for them, and so is the glory. Jesus expressed what John Macmurray referred to as the maxim of real religion: “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of” (from his Persons in Relation, quoted by William A. Barry, S.J., Finding God in All Things, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991, p. 128).
As Jesus spoke to the couple, they attended to him. Attention (prosoche) is the second movement toward hesychia (the stillness of heart that is contemplative prayer). They noticed the distracting thoughts that got in the way of turning toward Jesus, and they turned toward him, giving him their attention.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were journeying on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
What does Jesus’s pretense of walking ahead as though he were journeying on allow the couple to experience? Perhaps they experienced the desire to be with him. God always accords us agency. We aren’t forced to believe or receive. We have choice. Jesus allowed the couple the opportunity to extend hospitality. This was a freely offered gift which he chose to receive. He will be their companion, the one who breaks bread with them.
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
Jesus sat at the table with them—this is familiar. This is where they are accustomed to encountering Jesus. He did what they’re used to seeing him do with the bread. In that familiar experience, they suddenly knew. It’s the Lord! They understood with their minds and hearts as their bodies received. Everything lined up.
And then Jesus vanished. This is often our experience. We catch glimpses of the Holy. We grope after the one “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Sometimes we find God’s grace, and then it seems to vanish.
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Together the couple contemplated the experience of radical grace. Contemplation is “the long, loving look at the real” (Walter Burghardt). There at the table with Jesus, the desired and the real came together, and the couple grasped the truth with all their minds, hearts, and souls. Sometimes we, too, “get it” retrospectively as they did. The questions and fears vanish. We see the truth, and the truth is relationship with the one we love and who loves us. And we, like the couple on the road, experience our foolishness and slowness of heart (symptoms of trauma) eradicated.
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together…Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Jerusalem was no less dangerous than it had been when they fled it. It’s still the place where they were traumatized by witnessing their beloved Jesus’ execution, and the threat of persecution is real. But their trauma has been healed.
Controversies raged, and Jesus’ followers remain bereft and confused. Nevertheless, at night Cleopas and his wife walked back into that dark city, found their companions, and shared their story of amazing grace. Jesus’ love flowed to them, and then it flowed through them to others.
This is the movement we make time and again. We move away from God because we’re preoccupied with attachments or fears. Deeper than the attachments and fears, though, lies our love of God and God’s love of us. Because of that love, we find ways of stopping, turning, and attending. Lent offers a speed bump in the church calendar that helps us slow down and turn toward God. We have done so together.
Easter is the culminating feast. Rejoice! He is risen.