Jerusalem is in turmoil, and so it is with relief that Cleopas and I slip through her gates, heading home. The tightness in my jaw loosens a little as I look towards the soft hills stretching far ahead on the horizon. As a Jew, I know I should consider the temple the most beautiful structure in the world, yet, somehow, its towering stature doesn’t compare to the gentle grace of those tree-clad hills.
Cleopas and I walk quickly, as if hoping that distance will dull the memory of these last few days. Yet, even as the miles fall away, my mind keeps returning to the same images. Jesus – the one we believed to be the Messiah – weighed down by a cross on Jerusalem’s streets. A young man with wild eyes, shouting, “Crucify!”
The cool indifference of a Roman soldier driving a nail into a clenched hand. Blood-matted hair, crowned with sharp thorns. The wailing of a bereaved mother.
I shake my head, trying to rid myself of the unwanted images, wishing I had stayed away from the crucifixion as most of the others did.
“So what do you think of the women’s story?” Cleopas’ voice breaks through my reverie.
“Yes. The angels at the tomb and Jesus’ body gone?”
“Come on, Cleopas.” I shake my head. “We were there. We saw his last breath, heard his last words…”
“It is finished,” Cleopas fills in softly.
“Maybe someone took the body? Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know.” Cleopas kicks a stone on the road. “But John seems to think that God raised him.” It’s not difficult to see the doubt on his face, even as he says it.
“Yes. But of all of us, John and Peter are taking this the worst. They just can’t bear the truth that he is gone.”
“I mean, if he was raised, people would be seeing him on the streets by now. Dead men don’t just walk out of tombs, Cleopas.”
I suddenly become aware of a man walking a few paces behind us. Strange – I hadn’t noticed him there before. As he greets us, I wonder where I have seen him before. There’s something strikingly familiar about him; he reminds me of somebody I know. Or maybe somebody I knew once.
“What are you discussing together as you walk along?” His smile shows that he is expecting a light-hearted response.
“Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Cleopas asks rather incredulously.
“What things?” Still, laughter lingers on his lips.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” I say. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.”
The man shrugs and looks at us blankly. Surely, he must have come from outer Persia never to have heard of Jesus!
“The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him,” Cleopas continues. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Cleopas’ voice breaks with sorrow on the last few words, so I pick up the narrative about the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb this morning and claimed to have seen angels professing Jesus was alive. I almost expect the man to snort with laughter at this last statement, but he merely nods as if deeply interested, so I go on to tell him about Peter and John, who ran to the tomb and saw that the body was gone.
We walk in silence for a while after that. It must be an extraordinary story to hear for the first time, and the man appears to be deep in thought. I am surprised at the words he finally speaks, words that sound like a rebuke.
“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” I open my mouth to remind him that he hadn’t been there, but he is speaking again. “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
The strange sense of familiarity overwhelms me again. It’s more than just his face; it’s his manner and words too. Who is this man? As the sun begins its slow descent in the western sky, the stranger speaks. The air around us is a warm orange hue and – just for a short while – the hills seem to be alight with fire. The man tells of God and his promises. Of Moses and redemption. Of lambs and scapegoats. Of how the prophets foretold that the Messiah would be a man of sorrows, and that he would be pierced for our iniquities. The stranger’s words stir my cold heart into flame, just as the rays of the sun light up the stone mountains in the distance. Slowly, my crushed hope starts to unfurl and blossom to life again.
I’m almost disappointed to see the lights of my village, for the man tells us he still has a way to go on his own journey.
“Stay with us,” Cleopas says impulsively.
I nod. “Yes! It is nearly evening. The day is almost over.” He agrees, and follows us to Cleopas’ house, where the smell of fresh bread welcomes us. Bless Deborah! I didn’t realise just how hungry I was.
A few of Cleopas’ large brood come running out to hug our knees, and Deborah follows them, her greeting more subdued. We usher the guest inside, to the place of honour at the table. Deborah places a loaf of steaming bread in front of him. It takes a while to seat everybody, but, when they are finally all there, the man looks around and smiles. If I could paint joy, I would paint that smile. It lights up his eyes and face, and I see it reflected on every other face at the table, from the youngest to the oldest.
Then the man takes the bread and starts to give thanks. Of everyone at the table, only Cleopas and I have not dropped our heads in prayer. I cannot look away from the man. When he finishes praying, he breaks the bread.
It is at that precise moment that a jolt of fear shudders through my body. Suddenly, I know why his face and words seem so very familiar. His gaze – filled with the same love and wisdom I have seen countless times – finds my own. How could I have walked miles with him today and not seen the truth?
“My Lord,” I whisper.
“Jesus!” Cleopas cries.
However, in the next instant, Jesus is gone.
I look at Cleopas’ wonder-filled face as the others at the table open their eyes and begin to stir with questions. “He’s alive,” I say. “What the women said is true!”
“We must go back and tell the others,” Cleopas says. He rises despite Deborah’s protestations.
“Cleopas?” I am already reaching for my cloak. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
“Yes!” My friend exclaims. “Just as if he was kindling a slow fire to life in us with his words.”
Based on Luke 24:13-33
The story and illustration are from Encounters: Life Changing Moments with Jesus
Illustration: Carrol Evans