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Cleopas and his friend.

Easter Week has traditionally had two foci: first, on the hill called Golgotha where Jesus was crucified under a crude hand-lettered sign whose superscription was intended by Pilate to be ironic but which has truthfully echoed down the succeeding centuries: "This is the king of the Jews". Second, on Easter Sunday, when the frightened disciples were astounded to find the tomb empty, symbol of Christ's victory over death and the climax of God's redemptive drama.

But from the holy Trinity itself, to the three Magi who came to pay homage at Christ's birthplace, three rather than two tends to be the biblical number.

In Luke's Gospel we see the third focus of Easter, and an unlikely one it is: a parched and dusty stretch of road running from Jerusalem to the insignificant village of Emmaus.

Cleopas, some sort of relative of Christ's family, and another disciple, were walking this road and talking inevitably about the shattering events which had just happened: the horrific crucifixion, their probable peril as followers of Jesus, and now the reports of an empty tomb. The women of their company were talking even of visions of angels and gardeners who appeared to resemble Jesus. What did it all mean?

As Cleopas and his friend walked along, they were joined by a stranger. He seemed to be from another country, for he appeared not to know what had happened. So Cleopas and his friend filled the stranger in, telling him about Jesus, the carpenter's son from Nazareth, "a prophet mighty in deed and word... whom we had trusted should have been he to have redeemed Israel" (Luke 24:19-21). Now comes the twist: instead of expressing surprise or commiserating with them in their loss, the stranger instead began to expound the messianic gospel in the Hebrew scriptures from Moses through the prophets.

At about dusk the travelers reached the end of their journey and the stranger made as if to travel on. Cleopas and his companion pressed him to stay: "Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent" (24-29). These words were to be used by an asthmatic English parish priest, Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847), who wrote a poem called Eventide shortly before dying and gave it to a friend.

The friend tossed the poem into a trunk where it languished unseen for 14 years; eventually, the poem was retrieved, set to music by William Monk (1823-1889) at a time of deep sorrow in his own life, and became one of the most beloved hymns of Christendom,

Abide With Me:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

When Cleopas, his friend, and the stranger sat down to supper, the stranger "took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them" (v.30). What a moment of illumination that must have been, recalling so vividly the first Eucharist earlier that week! In that moment Cleopas and his friend recognized the stranger as their risen Lord, and in that moment of recognition he was gone.

Cleopas and his friend jumped up and set out on the approximately eight-mile trek back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what had happened. As they stumbled along in the dark, perhaps almost running from excitement, they said to one another (words which should echo in the congregation's ears after any worthwhile sermon): "Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?"

And so the geographic trinity of Easter is completed: the hill of Golgotha, the empty tomb, and the Emmaus road. Miraculous it is that these three locations, and events, were to shape two thousand years of human history, even today, in our "post-Christian" era, not quite forgotten.

In the 1960s the great British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge made a BBC television series on the life of Christ; the last scene depicted Muggeridge and a friend walking the road to Emmaus. Muggeridge later wrote:

"As my friend and I walked along like Cleopas and his friend, we recalled as they did the events of the Crucifixion and its aftermath in the light of our utterly different and yet similar world. Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and to fall in step along the dusty, stony way."

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario.
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Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:770
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