By Charles M. Sennott, April 1, 2013 15:27
Today in churches all over the world, the scripture tells of the story of the ‘road to Emmaus’ on the day after Easter Sunday. In the Gospel According to Luke, two of Jesus’ disciples headed out to a village called Emmaus, about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem.
It’s quite possible they were fleeing Roman authorities in fear of being associated with Jesus and his radical message. And it was there on the road to Emmaus more than 2,000 years ago that something mystical happened, a story with a good deal of resonance today.
According to Luke, the disciples were met on the road by a man. It was Jesus, but the disciples were unable to recognize him. As they walked, they told the man of the news that their messiah had risen. As evening set in, the disciples asked the man to stay and break bread. He began to turn away, but then turned back and sat with them. The stranger blessed the bread, broke it for his disciples and “their eyes were opened,” according to Luke’s gospel, and the disciples recognized him as Jesus. But at that moment they recognized they were in his presence, he vanished from their site.
Whether you believe in the Bible or not, Emmaus is not a fictional town. It is a real place in the West Bank off of what is known today as the “Modi’im Road,” along which there are a series of Israeli military checkpoints. On an ancient path that leads to a Palestinian village there are Roman paving stones which, since the time of the Crusades, have been believed to be the biblical setting of the story of Emmaus. The story is remembered every year in a Christian pilgrimage on this ancient path where there are services in which bread baked in Jerusalem is served to parishioners.
Today this village is called El-Qubeibeh and the Palestinian Christian presence in the village had dwindled to just one family, at least the last time I was there several years ago. The last Christian family was headed by Anton Quliyoba, a taxi driver who was the oldest of six brothers. All five of his younger brothers had moved to Los Angeles, and I often wonder if he has joined them in immigrating to Los Angeles and if there is any Christian presence at all left in the predominantly Muslim Palestinian village that is believed to be the same place where the story of Emmaus took place.
The story of Emmaus has a kind of spiritual resonance for those who wish to understand why a living Christian presence is important in the Middle East. The historical truth is that the Christian Arabs have always played an important role in promoting democracy within the countries of the Middle East.
It was often Christian thinkers and leaders who were in the vanguard of Arab nationalism, which these days is a kind of bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. As members of a religious minority, historians such as Fouad Ajami say they have always sought to push for political and legal structures that recognize their rights and in so doing they have often been in the vanguard of movements that supported tolerance and democracy.