My favourite of the Eastertide Gospels is Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It appears at first to be the sort of thing that can happen to anyone while travelling. We might call it the Law of the Large Train Station: someone there whom you don’t recognise is strangely enmeshed in your life. Take a narrow look at that man at the ticket counter: he knows about, well, that event so long covered by the dust of past years, the one wherein you played an uncharacteristically dubious part. Perhaps, then, it is best not to be too eager to talk to strangers.
Of course the road to Emmaus was not a Large Train Station, and that is what puzzles me. The disciples, Cleopas and Somebody, are travelling away from the action: they are walking from Jerusalem. They are doing so even after they have heard the news regarding an empty tomb, and a vision, and some women. Why are they going to Emmaus?
The famous painting by the Swiss artist Robert Zünd (right) suggests not trouble but peace and wonder. The scene is enfolded by towering oak trees, showing the blue of the sky breaking through white clouds beyond. The human figures are small by comparison, and we look upon them at a distance, from behind. Jesus walks between the two disciples, along a pleasant and shady path. He is robed in white and his right hand gestures towards the heavens.
Each disciple seems wholly absorbed, not to say astonished, by what he is saying. The younger turns his face towards Jesus, his walking stick apparently dragging awkwardly behind him. The elder is half-turned towards us, with a look of impatience, as if he were about to interrupt and ask a question. Their path bridges a small stream that flows towards the foreground. It is as if there had never been a death in the world. We cannot imagine their meeting anyone else on that road.
“My brothers, may the peace of God be with you,” says the poet Statius to Virgil and Dante as he, the “third man”, suddenly appears on the road of purgatory with them; and then Dante proceeds to lead his readers into wonder upon wonder, all made possible by the mysterious grace of God.
The artists and poets view the scene, as is just, in the light of Christ’s rising from the dead, which has already happened, and His appearance to those disciples in the breaking of the bread, which is going to happen that evening in the wayside inn. But what was going on in the minds and hearts of those disciples before Jesus approached them?
As so often in the Gospels, the disciples do not come off very well. There is nothing heroic about them, not even the inverted heroism of despair. So let us consider the human possibilities. Maybe they are walking from Jerusalem because they want some distance between themselves and the men they call “our” chief priests, not to mention the Romans.
Yet they are well aware of the predicament of the other disciples, who are still in the city, and they are willing to leave them to what appears to be a gloomy future. Is that not also a failure of friendship? When the moment of truth comes, they protect themselves first.
Maybe they have simply given up on Jesus. “We had hoped,” says Cleopas, “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” There is a dash of blame in that, as there is some exasperation in his first words to Jesus, that he must be the only stranger in Jerusalem without any idea of what has been happening there.
It is an irony even richer than the prophet Nathan’s turning upon David: “You are the man!” What the disciples learn that evening is that this stranger is the man, the only one who knows; the heart of the central event in the history of the world.
Maybe the place is too painful for them now. To walk the streets of Jerusalem is to see faces, and to wonder whether that man was one of the crowd that strewed the Lord’s path with branches of palm, or one of the crowd that cried out for his crucifixion – or both, such are the tangles of that knot of vipers, the human heart.
It is to see in every Roman soldier the brutish face of the carnifex (executioner), to hear in every scrap of demotic Latin the laughter of those who threw dice for Jesus’s robe. And if you recall the words of the Psalmist, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord’ ”, your heart sinks, and you turn aside. Egypt or Babylon would feel more like home.
But there is another possibility, one that I find hard to put into words. They have heard the confused report of the women; yet they do not stay. Our first inclination is to say that they are walking from Jerusalem despite the report. What if they are walking from Jerusalem because of it?
Naturally, a human being can take only so much confusion, and sometimes we want to flee the site of it just to clear our heads. But could that have been all? Let us suppose that the men believe it is possible that the women are telling the truth, that Jesus is alive. That something indeed has happened that changes everything.
Could it not be that the men had begun to feel a certain relief at the death of Jesus, a release of tension? Jesus was never a comfortable person to be near. The same fire of holiness that attracted sinners also repelled them. His yoke was easy, and his burden light; all it required was a complete surrender to the Father. More comfortable perhaps to be a cumin-tithing Pharisee.
Had Jesus not appeared to them on the road to Emmaus, we can imagine one of them as an old man, far away, reminiscing about the passions of his youth, shaking his head with a sad smile and thanking God that he had escaped from the madness.
And there it is: we do not find the story of Easter too good to be true, but too fearful to accept. Cleopas and Somebody were in flight, but Jesus, who accompanies mankind along the way, overtook them, clearing their minds and rousing their sluggish hearts, and then at last making himself manifest to them in what from the Last Supper to the trump of doom will be the form of his most intimate presence among us: the breaking of the bread.
Anthony Esolen is the author of Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery Press)