– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas
I have visited the Holy Land in Israel several times as chaplain of pilgrims. In 2016, together with three other Filipino diocesan priests, I came back to Israel for a half month visit. It was a wonderful feeling to be “home” again without the tight schedule and the demands of a group pilgrimage. The blissful atmosphere of the Holy Land will always give one a renewed experience of the divine, and every visit is a new experience. We have divided the 15 days’ journey to Israel visiting the holy places, tracing back reflectively the place of the birth of Jesus to his death, burial and resurrection.
Along with the sites in the Holy Land already familiar with us, we have long been wanting to visit Emmaus – the Emmaus that Luke mentioned in his Gospel. In our previous visits to Israel this was impossible. Given its long distance, it was difficult to fit the trail into a big group schedule. Armed with unwavering determination, we decided to visit Emmaus this time and to spend some time there taking that road where Cleopas and his companion encountered the risen Lord.
THE TRAIL TO EMMAUS
The Emmaus spoken of in the Gospel of Luke has not yet been definitely identified today. A number of places are held, by tradition and otherwise, to be the original site of Emmaus. The Gospel speaks very little about Emmaus. Luke described it hastily as a small village “seven miles from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:13). Modern biblical scholars speculated that Emmaus is northwest of Jerusalem. This has posed a problem for us. We decided to contact the Trappist Monastery at Latrum, 25 kilometer west of Israel, which is near Emmaus-Nicopolis (one of the possible “Emmaus”) if we can be accommodated in their place. The Trappist monks were more than happy to welcome us. The monks had given us a short background on our quest for Emmaus. They presented the ancient writings of Eusebius of Caesaria identifying Emmaus-Nicopolis with the Emmaus mentioned in the Gospel: “Emmaus, from which issued Cleopas, who is mentioned in St Luke’s Gospel, is today called Nicopolis, an important city of Palestine.”
Our search zeroed in on a small village which the monks suggested to be another place that might be the Emmaus of the Gospel, the small village of Al-Qubeiba in the north of Jerusalem, which is about an hour by car from their place. With all humility, the abbot of the monastery decided to drive us to Al-Qubeiba.
Al-Qubeiba is accessible from either Ramallah or Jerusalem. However, due to the closure of the roads from the town to Jerusalem during the second intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, beginning in 1987), only those with foreign passports or with the Jerusalem ID cards can gain entrance to the town from Jerusalem. Holding Philippine passports, and perhaps angelic looking faces, we were given access to the town and the surrounding perimeters by the armed military guards along the roads. But, not having the Israeli government required tour guide, we were not supposed to proceed. Nonetheless, by divine intervention, the strict security protocols were rescinded, we were even granted special permission to spend six hours to explore, but were strongly advised to report back to the same guards after our trek to the place.
We reached Al-Qubeiba at around late afternoon. The abbot had to go back for their vespers, and we were given instructions how to go back to the monastery. We walk through the little town inhabited mainly by Jewish families. Reaching a little further away from the town, we were welcomed by a breathtaking countryside, fresh air and silence. We continued journeying West, in the direction of the setting sun, hoping to encounter the risen Son in the same road and at the same time as the disciples did, as describe in the Gospel. Not only did the hearts of the disciples burn as they spoke with their risen Master: our hearts burned as well, since unlike the disciples, we knew that it was Jesus himself who was accompanying us:
“Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:13-18)
We walked reflectively so we could truly ponder on the story of the Gospel, the story that proclaim in our Masses. The trail we took added more solemnity to our Emmaus walk, as it was immersed in nature and covered with a greener vegetation. Based on the Gospel account, the presence of Jesus inspired the two disciples so deeply with his few words, for without hesitation they immediately poured out their hearts to him, unfolding the sad tale of how all their hopes for the redemption of Israel were dashed when Jesus was crucified at Golgotha. “And he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-27)
ENCOUNTERING THE LORD IN THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD
Following the road, we found a suitable place where we could celebrate our Mass: a big stone good enough to hold our small chalice and a crucifix. Recalling the event Luke described in the Gospel: “As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24: 28-32)
We were absorbed, renewed and blissful from our Emmaus experience. “Our eyes are opened, as were those of Cleopas and his companion, when Christ breaks the bread; and, though he vanishes once more from sight, we too will find strength to start out once more-the night is falling- to tell the others about him, because so much joy cannot be kept in one heart alone. The road to Emmaus: our God has filled this name with sweetness. Now the entire world has become an Emmaus, for the Lord has opened up all the divine paths of the earth.” (St Josemaria, Friends of God, no 314)
The hike on the road to Emmaus was an extraordinary experience for us priests. Our short journey brought us back to the Gospel episode to relive it on our own. The road we took might not be the exact and same road Jesus and his disciples have taken. “Emmaus really represents everywhere: the road to Emmaus is the road of every Christian, even of every man and woman. The risen Jesus becomes our travelling companion to rekindle the fire of faith and the hope in our hearts, and to break the bread of eternal life.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Regina coeli, April 6, 2008)