The Road to Emmaus
Out of all the post-resurrection stories, the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is likely the most famous. Jesus caught up to two disciples on the road, as they travelled away from Jerusalem. It’s a very relatable story for us in many ways. While Jesus was veiled from the travelers in the story, He can feel veiled to us in our present day. Jesus took the opportunity to reveal Himself on the road to Emmaus in a dramatic story. In reflecting on his self-revelation, may He reveal Himself to each of us!
On the Road Again
Cleopas (or Clopas, depending on the translation) and his unnamed companion set out on Easter Sunday to head to Emmaus. Perhaps they were returning to their old way of life, before becoming disciples of Jesus; perhaps they journeyed for work. Whatever the case, we only know the underlying reason for their journey: to get away from Jerusalem.
Jesus approached them on the road, though He kept the two companions from recognizing Him. In one of the comic moments in the Bible, Jesus asked what they were talking about. A shocked Cleopas shoots back, “are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” The veiled Jesus responds in turn, “what things?” I picture Cleopas with an incredulous look on his face. Unbelievable! Was he living under a rock? Cleopas fills in the details for the mystery traveler, and we can see how deeply the effects of the Triduum had on Cleopas by the way he relates the events to Jesus in rapid fire fashion.
Once Cleopas finished, Jesus said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” If Cleopas had been shocked before, he must’ve been even more stunned at Our Lord’s response. I imagine him thinking, who are You? And there is no greater question to ask when encountering Jesus.
Jesus interpreted the Old Testament to Cleopas and his companion, starting with Moses and proceeding through the prophets. Time must’ve flown by, since the next detail St. Luke related was that they’d arrived at Emmaus in the evening. The veiled Jesus acted like he was continuing his journey, but was waylaid when the two men begged Jesus to stay with them. Sitting down to a meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. At that point, Cleopas and his companion finally saw Jesus; at which point Our Lord vanished. They rose to head back to Jerusalem, saying to each other: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Upon joining the apostles, they told their story and heard more accounts of the resurrected Jesus.
The Emmaus story gives us a lot to reflect on, but I’d like to highlight four points. First, we can get a lesson in humility by taking a closer look at Cleopas. Second, Jesus’ identity becomes clearer in a subtle line from the story. Third, one of the most important tenets of the spiritual life is found in this story. Fourth and finally, the Emmaus story reaches its crescendo in the Eucharist.
Who is Cleopas?
Cleopas’ name occurs only one other time in Scripture. St. John notes in his gospel that Mary, the wife of Cleopas, stood at the foot of the cross along with Our Lady, the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene (19:25). Mary, the wife of Cleopas is described as the sister of Our Lady. Patristic era historians had different opinions on the exact meaning of “sister,” however, given that definitions of family were more malleable in 1st century Middle East than what we’re used to today. St. Jerome theorized that Mary the wife of Cleopas was likely the same person as Mary the wife of Alphaeus, and the mother of the apostle St. James the Less (Mark 15:40) (Against Helvidius #15). Eusebius cited the ancient Christian historian Hegesippus that Cleopas was the brother of Joseph, which would’ve made Mary of Cleopas the sister-in-law of Our Lady (Church History, III, ch. 11). Either way, Cleopas himself was a close relative of Jesus. It’s important to clarify that this is not magisterial, capital-T-Tradition; we are not bound to believe that Cleopas was Jesus’ uncle, third cousin twice removed, or step-brother’s father-in-law.
Have you ever had the thought, ‘if I had only been alive to hear Jesus preach, I never would’ve turned away from him’? It’s a prideful snare that we can trap ourselves in. Cleopas is an exhortation to humility for anyone who thinks that way. Here was someone who likely knew Jesus long before the public ministry began. By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Cleopas had been so much a part of the Christian community that he heard about the resurrection on Easter Sunday, down to the detail of the women at the tomb. All that, and Cleopas did not believe and still fled Jerusalem.
Who is Jesus?
This question often escapes our asking as simplistic. Everyone knows who Jesus is, right?
Cleopas had an interesting comment when he described Jesus to the veiled Jesus, calling Our Lord “mighty in word and deed.” This may sound like stating the obvious—were there any other messiahs healing diseases and raising the dead around Israel?—but there’s a deeper meaning. In Acts 7:22, St. Stephen preaches to the council of scribes and elders arraigned against him. He describes Moses in the same manner: “mighty in his words and deeds.” One of the most illuminating aspects of the Emmaus story is a rather hidden one: connecting the phrase “mighty in word and deed” and looking at Jesus as the new Moses.
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt” (Deut 34:10-11). We’re usually more familiar with seeing Jesus as the new Jacob, the new David, the new Adam, and so on through the list of Old Testament patriarchs. Pope Benedict highlighted what made Moses so special: “the most important thing about the figure of Moses is neither all the miraculous deeds he is reported to have done nor his many works and sufferings along the way…. [but] that he spoke with God as a friend. This was the only possible springboard for his works; this was the only possibly source of the Law that was to show Israel its path through history.” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 4)
His relationship with God was the key to understanding who Moses was and what he did. If we’re looking at Jesus the same way—wanting to understand who He is and what He did—we need to look at His relationship with God. Pope Benedict continues: “what was true of Moses only in fragmentary form has now been fully realized in the person of Jesus: He lives before the face of God, not just as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father…. The question that every reader of the New Testament must ask—where Jesus’ teaching came from, how his appearance in history is to be explained—can really be answered only from this perspective.” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 6)
We can harvest a wealth of spiritual insight by comparing Jesus to Moses.
Making the First Move
In the spiritual life, in theology, in revelation, one factor remains consistent: God makes the first move toward us. On the road to Emmaus, the veiled Jesus didn’t wait for Cleopas and his companion to come to Him. It’s a good thing—judging from Cleopas’ comments, they were both still distraught over the crucifixion. In this case, Jesus kept His identity veiled. But have you ever been so down that you wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He came up beside you?
See what love the Father has for us! Just like on the road to Emmaus, Jesus steps right into our hearts regardless of the kind of day we’re having. He comes to love us and bring us back to Himself.
The Mass at Emmaus
Interestingly, the Emmaus story contains many of the key parts of the Mass. Msgr. Charles Pope has an extensive look at these key points, but in summary: the two companions journey together (gathering), essentially confess their sins of not believing and running away (penitential rite), have the Word of God explained to them (Liturgy of the Word), shared the Eucharist with Jesus (Liturgy of the Eucharist), and then went to tell others (dismissal).
St. Luke described that Eucharistic offering with four verbs: took, blessed, broke, and gave. Jesus “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30). This pattern repeats in the accounts of the multiplication of loaves (Matt 14:19, Matt 15:36, Mark 6:41, Mark 8:6, Luke 9:16), the Last Supper (Matt 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, with the “do this” command standing in place of the verb “gave”), and St. Paul’s brief description of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-24). The multiplication of loaves is a miracle that foreshadows the Eucharist, and the Last Supper instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist.
At every Mass, we’re supposed to see Jesus as Cleopas and his companion did—walk with Jesus, get set afire with zeal in hearing the Word, and encounter Jesus in the Eucharist.
Let us be humble. He wants to bring us back to Himself, just as His intervention brought Cleopas and his companion back to Jerusalem. Let us remember to go to Jesus no matter our feeling, most of all in the Eucharist. Jesus loves us in a way we can only glimpse, and He’s willing to walk with us as far as we need Him to.