Every year, for eight years, on Easter Monday, I used to go on a 20 mile hike. It was from Welwyn, Hertfordshire, where I was a parish priest, to our cathedral in St. Albans. I was joined by about 100 young people and helpers from our Sunday School and Youth Group. When we got to St Albans, we would join 10 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 at church rubbing their bleary eyes, and with their hiking boots and back packs, sat on the floor of 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 prayers 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.
It is the story of how those 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.
Toward the end of T.S. Eliot’s the Wasteland, 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 of 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 a 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 NT 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 OK 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 all 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 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 or the furnace of the fire. In our times 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?
The Risen Christ walks by our side, but 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 house, certainly not a mansion! – but a stopping place: rather like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on journey (like 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.
Jesus in this passage says that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s 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 life when we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide we’d like to stop there for good! To give up the journey – because where we have got to is far enough, thank you very much. But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots: pitching our tents and taking out the tent pegs in the morning and moving on.
Christ urges us on. We are a pilgrim people. Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.
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? Or to change or 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 only end when we reach our final resting place, when we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.
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