Every year for eight years on Easter Monday, I used to make a twenty mile hike. It was from Welwyn, Hertfordshire, where I was parish priest, to our cathedral in St Albans. I would be joined by about a hundred young people and helpers from our Sunday School and Youth Group. When we got to St Albans, we would join ten thousand others arriving from every corner of the diocese for the annual Diocesan Youth Pilgrimage. The day culminated in a great Easter celebration with a very loud rock band on the grounds below the cathedral.
But my favorite part of the day happened early in the morning: at about 6:30 the young people arrived in church, rubbing their bleary eyes, and with their hiking boots and back packs, sat on the floor in the sanctuary, and we would have an informal Eucharist. The atmosphere was incredible. The day before there had been packed services, but now, the morning after, everything was very silent: and the air was heavy with the smell of candles and also heavy with all the prayer and worship that had been offered during Holy Week and Easter. The young people picked up the sense of awe and silent wonder. Then we would read the Gospel and it was always the same one: the story of the Road to Emmaus.
The story of how these two disciples, as they journeyed along the road were suddenly and mysteriously joined by another. And this other spoke to them in a way which profoundly affected them. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us along the road?” The other whom they had encountered was the Risen Lord. And on that Easter Monday morning, sitting on the floor of the sanctuary in the silence as the sun began to shine through the stained glass of the East window, we too experienced the presence of the other, the Risen One, in our midst.
Towards the end of T. S. Eliot’s poem the Waste Land, he writes:
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…”
Eliot explains in the notes that he has in mind the story told Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition: how the party of explorers when at the extremity of their strength repeatedly felt that there was one more member than could actually be counted.
Long before Shackleton, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a similar experience: “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? Yet I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
For me, the experience of resurrection is the very real presence of this other in my life: the Risen One. And his compelling invitation is to take to the road. To journey, to make pilgrimage.
Monica Furlong in her book Traveling In wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make.”
“Come. Follow me.” “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Christianity has never been simply a static body of doctrine, but rather a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians were “followers of the Way.”
But I suppose if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. I think I am okay where I am now, thank you. The call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and frankly scared. And yet that is what the resurrection life is about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come.” We are pilgrims headed somewhere and that is our heavenly home.
The story of Emmaus is deeply encouraging: wherever we are on our life’s journey, we are never alone. We are always joined by another: the Risen One. He is the one who always walks beside us: when we are at the extremity of our strength he is with us, in the wilderness of ice, like Shackleton or in the furnace of the fire. In our time of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us that “You are not alone: you have a companion.”
I wonder what experience you have of that in your own life?
But the Risen Christ not only walks by our side, he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, chapter 14, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting: it’s the Greek word monai. That doesn’t mean a home and certainly not a mansion, as it is translated in the King James, but a stopping place: more specifically a wayside shelter where a traveler could rest a night on his journey, like the mountain huts in the White Mountains.
It was the custom in the East for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road so that when they arrived they might find comfort as well as shelter. It reminds me of the British in the 19 th century hiking in the Himalayas. They would send the sherpas ahead to prepare tea, scones and Oxford marmalade!
Jesus, in this passage says that he is that person for us. He is the one just ahead of us on our life journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”
I wonder though if we often reach a stage in our Christian life when we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter and decide we’d like to stop here for good. To give up the journey because where we’ve got to is far enough, “thank you very much.” But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots: pitching our tents then taking out the tent pegs in the morning and moving on. For Christ urges us on. We are a pilgrim people. “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid, for I will be the one walking by your side, and I will also go before you to prepare the way,” he says.
So, two weeks after Easter. How have you experienced the Risen Lord in your life during these weeks? Where do you feel that he is leading you? Where is the invitation?
Have you maybe stayed too long in your present wayside shelter? Is Christ maybe urging you to move on, to change, to grow?
If the journey seems daunting or overwhelming, the resurrection Gospel assures us that the Risen One will always be our companion on the way, and will always go before us to prepare the way.
We are a pilgrim people, and our journey will end when we reach our final resting place, when we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
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