The title of this article reminds us of the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We know where Bethlehem is and that its history dates back to Jesse, the Father of David. We know that this is where Joseph brought the pregnant Mary and where she gave birth to Jesus, praised by the angels and witnessed by local shepherds as the Son of the Most High.
But Emmaus? It’s hard to pinpoint its location on the map of Israel. The town is mentioned in 1 Maccabees 3:40 as on the plain near the hill country and in 1 Maccabees 3:57, where Judas Maccabeus mustered his Israelite troops to fight and to conquer, against all odds, the Seleucid army of Antiochus Epiphanes in 166 B.C. The battle was viewed by the Judeans as the vindication of the God of Israel over the gods of the Gentile nations. The victory was regarded as an act of redemption of the People of God.
Emmaus is also mentioned in Luke 24:13-35, where the evangelist writes the unique episode of the two disciples walking dejectedly to that town on the evening of the resurrection. They discussed how they (Cleopas and an unnamed disciple) had hoped that “Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.” The word “redeem” in Greek is the same one used by Judas Maccabeus who declared that the Gentiles would come to know that God was the Redeemer of Israel (1 Maccabees 4:11).
The Emmaus story is really about how the risen’ed, but incognito Jesus joined the two along the road and before they reached the town, Jesus opened for them the Hebrew Scriptures about how the Redeemer of Israel had to suffer and die and rise again. Later on, the disciples admitted their hearts “burned” within them that the resonance was so strong. At an inn in the town, they said their eyes were opened at the “breaking of the bread.” Jesus vanished from their eyes, but was present in their hearts. They got up “immediately” to return to Jerusalem to announce what they had heard and seen: “He has Risen!”
The teacher Jesus showed the disciples how to read the scriptures with what the ancient Church Fathers would call “the Fuller Sense” of scripture reading. The format, reading and commentary first, followed by the ritual would become the model for the Eucharist, the other Sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours.
Now back to the connection between Bethlehem and Emmaus: Luke wrote about both places and in both, Luke referred to the signs pointing to the Messiah. In Luke 2:12: “And this shall be a sign to you, you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” In Luke 24:35: “He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” Both the shepherds and the two disciples had to admit: “Yes, It is He!”
Do we get it?
About the author: Fr. Robert B. Fisher, SVD, SThD was ordained in the order of SVD in 1965 and received his Doctorate in Theology in 1969. He served as a priest, missionary and professor in the Philippines, Ghana and in the U.S.