But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” There it is, in a short summary sentence: the end of their hope. When hope is placed in the past tense, it is over. You get up, share a last word and embrace with your friends, dust yourself off and begin to walk home. The Greek tense of the verb “hope” in this sentence indicates ongoing action in the past (“we had been hoping”). The hope the disciples had placed in Jesus was not momentary, but was at the heart of their ongoing lives. Now, for Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, hope had crashed to a halt when Jesus died on the cross.
Jesus had told his apostles and disciples on a number of occasions that he would die and be raised, but either this did not meet their expectations or they were unable to process the truth Jesus had told them. The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, who had remained faithful to Jesus, were reminded of this truth when they went to care for Jesus’ body at the tomb.
Two angels greeted them, saying: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.” Only then, Luke tells us, did the women remember what Jesus had said and believe what had taken place. But when the women went to tell the apostles and the other disciples what had happened, they were unable or unwilling to believe the women and considered their story “nonsense.”
Permission must be granted for the doubt and reservations of the disciples, because, after all, dead men do not rise from their graves. When the teacher you had hoped was the Messiah dies a cruel Roman death on the cross, a death witnessed by many of his followers, you start to talk and discuss what might have been, how it went wrong, perhaps even how you could have been so mistaken.
The encounter of Cleopas and the unnamed disciple with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus gives us insight into the nature of God and the means by which God came to save us and why it was so easy for the disciples to think in terms of hope in the past tense instead of joy in the present.
Apart from the humiliating death on the cross, there was no monumental rising from the grave, with strikes of thunder, lightning, earthquakes and the resurrected Jesus striding triumphantly across the world stage. There was only an empty tomb and angelic messengers, witnessed by a few women and later by Peter, and quiet encounters along a lonely road.
Yet joy breaks in with the presence of the risen Lord quietly walking alongside his bereft disciples, asking questions and listening to their answers, until he breaks in and says, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” They do not identify him as Jesus, but they need him near, as he seems to be leaving them. They cannot be apart from this wondrous stranger. It is only when Jesus breaks bread with them that “their eyes were opened”—and he was gone.
He was gone, but hope had returned. It is with hope that Cleopas and his friend returned to Jerusalem to meet with the other disciples. There they learned that their encounter with the risen Jesus was not the only one, as they are told that “the Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”
There could be no church without Easter, only broken disciples walking home with sweet and bitter memories; and there could be no Easter without Jesus risen from the dead. He can appear subtly and in numerous ways, but always in the breaking of the eucharistic bread that his disciples share. The mark of his disciples is hope and joy and the ability to say, “The Lord has risen indeed.”