April 13, 2018

Reflection / John F. Fink

Who were those disciples on the road to Emmaus?

John F. FinkOne of the Gospels we read during the Easter season is St. Luke’s account of the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. Who were these disciples, and how did this account get into Luke’s Gospel?

We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we can speculate. Traditions in the Church in the Holy Land give us some hints.

Luke said that one of the disciples was Cleopas, but he doesn’t name the other. St. John’s Gospel says that Mary the wife of Clopas was among those standing by the cross when Jesus died. We believe that “Clopas” and “Cleopas” were the same person. Furthermore, we believe that this person was also known as Alphaeus.

Both Catholic and Orthodox traditions believe that Clopas was the younger brother of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus. Clopas, or Cleopas, was Mary’s brother-in-law. This would explain why “Mary the wife of Clopas” was standing by the cross. She was trying to comfort her sister-in-law.

I think this sheds light on who the other disciple on the road to Emmaus might have been—Mary, the wife of Cleopas.

I like to believe that Cleopas and his wife Mary were close to Joseph and his wife Mary, and that relationship continued with Mary after Joseph’s death. Since Cleopas and Mary lived only seven miles from Jerusalem in Emmaus, they undoubtedly would have gone there for the Jewish feasts, especially for Passover. Since they were family, Jesus’ mother Mary might have stayed with them while they were all in Jerusalem.

Perhaps they were there for the week before Jesus’ crucifixion. They watched while Jesus rode a donkey in a great procession on the Sunday before his death. Perhaps they were among those who spread palm branches on the ground.

They would have been there, too, when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Cleopas probably watched from some distance, as did all the men except John, but his wife was by the cross.

Cleopas and Mary would have observed the Sabbath in Jerusalem, but then it was time for them to return to their home in Emmaus. Cleopas had been away for a week, and it was time for him to get back to work. But before they left, they heard that some women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and couldn’t find his body. They returned to report a vision of angels who announced that Jesus was alive.

So they were discussing all this when a man caught up with them and started to walk with them. This man went on to interpret things that referred to the Messiah in the Scriptures.

When they arrived at Emmaus, Mary and Cleopas invited the man to stay with them. Mary hurried to prepare supper. When they sat down, the man took some bread, said a blessing, broke the bread and gave it to them. At that, their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus. But just as they did, he vanished.

So Cleopas and Mary hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles what happened to them, and how they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

In a writing from 180 A.D., the historian Hegesippius wrote that Cleopas and Mary were the parents of Simon, Jesus’ cousin, who became the second bishop of Jerusalem after the martyrdom of James in the year 62. Simon led the Christians across the Jordan River to Pella before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 and then back again when it was safe. He built the first Christian church on Mount Zion. Some scholars believe that it was Simon, rather than his mother, who was accompanying his father on the road to Emmaus. It seems more likely to me, though, that his parents would have been traveling together.

Scholars believe that Simon may have told Luke about the Emmaus experience, which is why it appears only in Luke’s Gospel.

Today the Arab village of El-Qubeibeh (pronounced Co-baby), seven miles from Jerusalem, has a church built over what is believed to be Cleopas’s home. There is also a Franciscan monastery there.
 

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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