Emmaus Road

Meditation for Easter 3

We had to get away. The atmosphere in that room was stifling, more than that it was curdled with grief and despair and anger. Our limbs seemed slow and heavy as we waded towards the door, all the emotion, all the terror, all the fear was like oil clinging to our bodies, dragging us back.

We told Peter that we needed to go home, see how things were going in Emmaus, check on our parents. He looked at us as if we were mad for leaving the protective darkness of the house and daring to step out into the sun, for daring to walk the same streets as the Roman thugs. But we had to get away.

We needed to get out of that room, back to familiar territory, put some distance between ourselves and all that had happened those last three days. It was the only way we might ever make some sense of the events. And perhaps back home, back among our own things, our own people, all the violence, all the pain, all the shattered dreams might fade to benign memories.

First we had to get out of the city. We scuttered along back alleys, kept tight under the shadows of the houses, held each other’s hand to pull ourselves along, taut as wires, listening out for the clink of armour, the clank of the harness, the explosion of guttural Latin which would signal the nearness of a Roman patrol. We kept quiet, wordlessly mouthing prayers, asking God to keep the soldiers away yet knowing that when we got to the gate there would be no avoiding them.

As we reached the wall Mary, my wife, started retching, dry heaving, moaning, bent double, body rippling with groans. I thought the nerves had got to her, I stroked her back, held tight her linen clothes, trying to be brave, scared that she would draw too much attention to us, that the soldiers would be drawn to the spectacle, would be unable to resist mocking and kicking the vulnerable. Instead they shrank back in fear of contamination, punched questions out at me – ‘Where are you going? Why?’ – dismissed my gabbled reply and waved us through the gate with the butts of their spears.

We staggered out on the Emmaus road. My guts were racing along two paces ahead of me, Mary was still bent double and choking. But the moment we turned a corner, out of sight of the guards, she flicked off my solicitous hand, stood straight and proud, her scarf falling from her face, her eyes hard and angry as she turned on me. And then it started – the bickering, the arguing, the hurling of insults. ‘Clopas, you gutless, wittering apology for a man, where were you when they crucified my Lord. I stood on that hill, surrounded by leering, jeering, cheering soldiers and watched them hammer home the nails into his sweet, gentle flesh, I heard his cry of pain, saw the spasms wrack his limbs, felt the heavens crack and the world go grey and where were you? Where you there to defend me from the lust of the soldiers, high on the smell of fear and blood? Where you there to shield my eyes from the horror of his torture? Where you there to see your hope torn to shreds? No, you were hiding in a tavern, playing up to that extra ‘e’ you’ve added to your name Cleopas – making out that you were of Greek extraction, pretending all this mess was nothing to do with you.’

I stumbled, tears of rage and guilt clouding my vision. Still she carried on: ‘You’ve no Greek blood in your veins Clopas. You’re a Jew through and through and you were too scared to lift a finger to save a fellow Jew, and not just any Jew, but our…’
‘Our what?’ stung, I flung the words back, ‘Our baby kissing politician who was preaching all sweetness and light, telling us pretty stories of pearls and sheep and all good wholesome things in the hope that we might sleep tight and not notice that the world was going to the pigs around us? If he was more of a man than me, if God was on his side, why didn’t he raise a sword and strike down the soldiers when they came hunting for him in the garden?’

And there Mary stopped, took a deep, shrugging breath, bent double again, because she couldn’t get it out of her head – why, when Judas came groping towards him with that clumsy kiss, didn’t Jesus turn the situation round with a clever word, or just slip away as he had done so many times before?

Jesus didn’t wave away the threat, instead he turned to face it. The conclusion was inevitable, grisly, crushing with a bone breaking, life-quenching finality.

Now we were turning our backs on Jerusalem, returning to our own home, there was nothing left for us in the capital, everything that mattered to us there had been destroyed. Looking round that huddle of lost followers and friends was like entering a damp room on a wet day only to find that the fire in the hearth had turned to ash – no matter how hard you blew on the dust nothing could ever revive it.

Jerusalem was a past life for us. We were going home, back to our own village, our own house. Mary would sweep out the hearth, I would glean a few sticks, together we would set to with the kindling and as the flames began to rise so they would burn away the sorrow, the misery, the chill of despair, the memory of those last few days.

Perhaps. Or perhaps we would keep arguing. ‘You ran away, Clopas, you ran away just when he needed you most, just when I needed you most.’ One step in front of the other, backs to Jerusalem, hands balled tight into fists, not touching each other. ‘He gave up Mary, when they came for him he gave up. All that talk about God’s kingdom, God’s plan, it meant nothing. When they came for him, when Judas led the torches, when they came in force with spears and swords, he had no plan, he faced them with empty hands. All his stories were just castles in the air.’

‘You two are in a hurry – what are you talking about?’ We hadn’t noticed him appear. Another traveller on the road, he had caught us up and caught us out. Our eyes slid across to each other, up to his face, then down to the ground. Husband and wife bickering in public, speaking disrespectfully of the dead, we were ashamed, stopped dead in our tracks.

Who was he? Where had he come from? Was he another Judas? There was nothing memorable about his face. His eyes were thoughtful, his voice was gentle. ‘What were you talking about?’ We looked at each other, weighing up his words. I couldn’t keep it in: ‘You must be from another planet if you don’t know what’s been going on in Jerusalem these last few days.’ ‘What things?’ ‘There was a man.’ – ‘He was more than a man.’ ‘Jesus from Nazareth.’ – ‘He was a prophet.’ ‘He told us the mighty would be broken down.’ – ‘He healed the sick.’ ‘He told us God was our king.’ – ‘He dried up haemorrhages.’ ‘He threw the embezzlers out of the Temple.’ – ‘He fed the hungry.’ ‘He told us that God had more power than the Romans.’ -‘Our own priests betrayed him.’ ‘He could have been God’s hero – but he let them kill him.’ – ‘His body is gone, our friends saw angels at his tomb.’ ‘Women’s talk – meaningless gibberish, the place was empty, there was nothing to see.’ We poured it all out. It didn’t seem to matter if he would hand us over to the authorities. They couldn’t torture us any more than we were torturing ourselves. If Jesus wasn’t the divine champion then our oppression would never end.

He put his arms round our shoulders, drew us closer together steering us along the road. Our eyes were set firmly on our feet, not looking ahead, concentrating on stepping without stumbling. ‘How foolish you are, how slow to take to heart all that your prophets have told you.’ Hands on our backs, he propelled us forward. ‘Didn’t your teacher ever open for you the scroll of the prophet Isaiah? Don’t you remember your scriptures?’ Did the birds stop singing? Did the bees stop humming? Did the sheep stop bleating? Did our feet hit the ground without making a sound? All we heard were the scriptures being rolled out before us, telling a story we had felt but never heard, a mystery we had glimpsed but blotted out, a tale of stripping, suffering, shame, disfigurement and degradation that was also a tale overwhelming generosity, a tale of a banquet being made of God’s very being, a tale that was woven into every line of our scrolls, a journey through the history of our people, which we were treading with every step that took us closer to home.

Home, Emmaus, our house was in sight, at last we could lift our eyes and see the lintel and posts of our own doorway. His hands lifted from our shoulders, as our feet turned up our street so he passed us by, quickening his pace.

With home in our sights some of the fear slipped away. ‘Night is drawing in, the day is ending, come stay with us.’ His footsteps slowed. ‘We’ve room in the house, a pallet to rest your head, its going to be a cold night and a bright one.’ He stopped, standing on one foot, drawing patterns in the dirt with the other. ‘And you can tell us more about the scriptures of the Messiah.’ ‘Yes, we want to know, need to know how his story ends.’

He turned, eyes bright, head bowed and followed us to our house. We stepped over the threshold and as we did everything we had been holding together seemed to disintegrate around us. Our minds went numb with the pain of death, our bodies collapsed, unable to maintain their readiness for flight, shivering we sank into the chairs our chairs, in our room, in our house, in our village. But when we looked around at all that was familiar we saw nothing to comfort us, we were in strange place that was both home and not home. Dust blanketed the room, stifling all colour. Our table looked cracked, our pots were chipped, the chairs upon which we sat were angular, hard and gashed splinters into our hands and spines. It was all too much, our eyes filled, tears fell, sobbing, keening rose and broke in our chests, sat in our chairs, hands grasping the arms until the nails pierced our skin we cried and cried and cried, unable to contain the desolation that engulfed us.

And we were ashamed, of all that we had and hadn’t done to save our friend, of our treatment of each other, of our inability to look after our guest. But what was he doing? Through wet, blurred eyes we watched him brush the dust from the table with a sweep of his arm, set the plates and pots in good order, take a bucket out into the street and bring water from the well, go out into the yard and march back, arms laden with kindling, then bend to the floor and with patience and skill he breathed on the wood and coaxed a fire into life.

Then returning to the table he dug a rough loaf of Jerusalem bread out of the folds of his cloak, rested it on the clay platter, opened out his arms and bade us welcome to come and sit and eat. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared, but we were so hungry, so in need of the warmth of the fire and of table fellowship, so desperate for the little rituals that gave shape and certainty to our lives.

We gathered round the table as his guests. He began the prayers over food, the familiarity of the words seeped through our grief, the tears stopped. We looked at his rough, scarred hands as he held the bread before us, then suddenly he blessed it, broke it, held it out to us in either hand – ‘Take, eat, do this.’

The fire, crackled, blazed, threw his shadow, cruciform, on the wall behind him, a spark ignited, the room shone with light. Our eyes were wide, we turned and clung to each other. ‘It is the Lord.’

The fire dropped to a cosy glow, we turned back to the table, the third place was empty. But the bread was still there on the platter. We broke a piece off, gave it to each other, wrapped up the rest in a square of clean linen and as we ate, as we creased the folds around the remains, we remembered him: the man at the table, his words on the journey, the touch of his hands on our backs, the man on the cross, outside the city walls, his hands breaking bread at that other table, his hands raising the broken from their beds and setting them on their feet again.

We stood on our road worn feet. We looked around the room at our own familiar things. It seemed that this house was not our tomb, Emmaus was not our final destination. Picking up the white linen packet of bread we stepped through the door, took each other’s hand and turned back towards Jerusalem, back towards the heart of faith.

We have seen the Lord, he is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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