Road to Emmaus: The Strangest Tales Are the True Ones

‘All great literature is one of two stories,’ said Leo Tolstoy, ‘a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.’

James Tissot, “The Pilgrims on the Road to Emmaus” (c. 1890)

Brothers. Please, hear my testimony before you would dismiss it. I see that of the 12 of you who walked most closely with the Lord, only 11 are here. I don’t understand why Judas did what he did. The Lord cared so very much for him. I was broken by what had happened on Friday, as I know the rest of you were as well.

We all know that rumors spread very quickly! Cleopas and I had heard of this morning’s strange reports, of the women seeing angels and the empty tomb. We live in Emmaus, a village west of here. Though we’d heard the rumors, he’d insisted that there was no reason for us to remain here in Jerusalem, and so we left this afternoon. We wanted to make sure that we’d be home by nightfall.

The walk to Emmaus is long. We broke our sad silence by discussing what those strange accounts could possibly have meant, thinking that only the trees could hear us. Cleopas figured that grief must have driven Mary Magdalene, along with those other poor women, hysterical. We debated who could’ve stolen the Lord’s body, and why they would do such a thing. 

Suddenly I heard footsteps on a paved road. I felt the presence of another man, a stranger walking beside us. Of course, many men walk on that road, so we hardly noticed him at first. We continued talking. 

“What are you discussing as you walk along?” this stranger suddenly interrupted.

We stopped right there. I could hardly bring myself to lift my eyes, and look at this stranger. Cleopas, though sad like me, was dumbfounded that anyone coming from Jerusalem would ask this.

“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” Cleopas asked.

“What sort of things?” the stranger asked. 

Cleopas sighed, and shook his head.

“The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,” I sighed, “who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.” 

I sniffled. My eyes began welling. 

“Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”

“Oh,” the stranger replied, “how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” 

Cleopas and I stood there, not knowing how we ought to reply.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked us, very matter-of-factly.

I wondered how this man brought himself to believe this. Obviously, he must’ve never actually seen a crucifixion happen. Surely, the Lord would’ve corrected this man, if only he could!

Cleopas, on the other hand, became rather curious.

We continued walking, with the stranger beside us. He began speaking to us about the Scriptures, of what Moses and the prophets had written about the Messiah, of words that I’d read and yet seemed to have misread throughout my life. What I’d found most peculiar was how this stranger spoke so authoritatively, just as the Lord used to when he’d spoken of the Scriptures. Strangely, I began to feel something pulsing in my heart which I’d thought had been lost forever: hope.

The walls of the village finally came within our sight. Cleopas and I stopped there. The stranger nodded farewell to us, and then he kept on walking. I worried that something dreadful could happen to him at night. But I’ll admit that even more than that, I wanted him to remain with us, continue giving us hope, if only for a little while longer! 

My pleading eyes met those of Cleopas. Cleopas nodded sympathetically.

“Stay with us,” I shouted out, “for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” 

The stranger suddenly stopped on the road. He turned around, looked right at us, and agreed. 

We took the stranger into our house. Cleopas showed him to the table, where they sat down. I brought some bread, put it down on the table, and sat there with them. The stranger picked the bread up. He said a blessing, broke it, and handed pieces to each of us. 

Brothers, the most astonishing thing of all is what happened next! We’d walked with this stranger for all that time, spoken with him, and even taken him into our house, without having seen that this so-called stranger was not a stranger at all: He was the risen Lord! 

I saw him just as clearly as I can see all of you right now!

And then, just like that, the Lord had suddenly vanished from our sight.

Cleopas and I remained there at the table, speechless. I don’t know whether a few seconds, or several minutes, had passed. “Were not our hearts burning while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” I finally brought myself to ask.

I stood and headed toward the doorway. Cleopas was confused by this at first, but then followed me. We came back here, to Jerusalem, without giving any thought to the dangers of the night.

We arrived here, at this house, and heard some of you saying: “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” 

But I can tell that many among you still don’t believe it. Thomas, why are you looking at me like that? Why are you leaving?

I’m telling you the truth! Do you think I’m making this up, or that I’m crazy? Do people go insane because they believe in the truth, or in lies? But what if the truth happens to be beyond what most men would dare to imagine? Wouldn’t telling the truth sound like lunacy to those men? Still, regardless of what any man would think, I have to keep on telling the truth, or otherwise I myself will forget it. Please, just as my own eyes had been opened, let my testimony help open yours as well. He wants you to believe …

It’s common to turn to Scripture while search for answers. The strength of a passage such as the Walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is that it raises so many questions, especially about ourselves.

It’s still not exactly clear who Cleopas and his companion were. They could well have been two friends, or relatives, or perhaps even a married couple. Uncertainty makes them all the more relatable. 

These two companions weren’t particularly dumb, as far as we can tell. All of us have minds which have been conditioned, to at least some degree, which goes on to affect our perception. How does the conditioning of our own minds prevent us from seeing that which is right in front of us? What opportunities, or even miracles, do we routinely fail to see because the word “impossible” may have crept into our minds? Or how does sin prevent us from discerning the presence of God in our daily lives?

The Risen Christ entered their midst as they were talking about rumors regarding him. His verbal exchange with them began with a question, which may have appeared rather dumb at first. He obviously already knew the answer, but got them to answer it in their own words. From there, he moved on to opening the Scriptures, and loosened the grip of their previous assumptions. 

Christ gave the impression that he would keep on walking once they were near Emmaus. He may very well have kept on walking, and faded away from view, had they not invited him in (Matthew 10:14). And the climactic discernment finally occurred at a table, when the Lord blessed and broke bread for them, in a clearly Eucharistic setting. 

How does the sequence of events of this particular journey echo that of so many of our own walks in faith? If Our Lord enters our midst while we talk about him (including those times in which we are sad or perhaps even skeptical), then is it our duty to talk about him often? How can Scripture, when it is interpreted properly (rather than how we may wish to interpret it), loosen the grip of our own prior assumptions? How does the Lord wait for us to invite him? What are we really witnessing whenever we attend Mass?

In Luke 24:36, the verse which immediately follows this passage, it’s recorded that “while they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” 

The apostles themselves (minus Thomas, according to John 20:24) were finally able to verify the rumors of the Risen Christ shortly after these two companions had reported his appearance on the road to Emmaus to them. How do we in the laity nourish the faith of those in the clergy through our own witness?

A full list of questions which invoked by the Walk to Emmaus could fill volumes before it would finally be exhausted. Like the two companions on the road, who were asked “what sort of things?” by Our Lord, we have to answer him ourselves. The strangest tales are the true ones.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain, “but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

O Lord. As we travel in our own lives, and yet fail to discern your presence all too often, walk beside us. Loosen the grips of our stubborn hearts and minds, so that we may finally invite you into our homes, and see that you have always been in our midst. Amen.

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