Walk the road to Emmaus

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"Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.”

One of the most beautiful moments in the scripture follows after the resurrection. Cleopas and an unnamed disciple are walking along the road to Emmaus. It’s been three days since the crucifixion and their minds are reeling with all that has happened. First Jesus was taken from them, abused, humiliated, and crucified. Although Jesus insisted it was meant to be, it was not something every disciple could comprehend. Then on the third day they receive strange but wonderous news. The stone on Jesus’ tomb had been rolled back and his tomb stands empty, no trace of the Son of God.

What would have been rolling through their minds at that moment? Could it be true, could Jesus have returned as he promised he would? Certainly, that would be their most cherished dream, but could they dare to open their hearts to it? What if it wasn’t true? What if it was? 

It is in the midst of this inner turmoil and conflict that Jesus joins them on the trail. His identity is kept from them, they cannot recognize the man who walks beside them, instead they speak with him as if he is a stranger. He asks them questions about the source of their woe and then offers reassurances that put some fire back into the two bewildered disciples. It is only when they invite this stranger to share a room and meal with them for the night that the haze preventing them from recognizing Jesus is lifted and they are able to rejoice in his true resurrection. 

It’s a wonderful passage, one that both touches on the real humanity and uncertainty of the disciples and the kindness and patience of Jesus. Now, with the newly christened Emmaus trail, we have the chance to follow those incredible footsteps and walk the road to Emmaus ourselves. Another chance to connect with actual biblical history and remind ourselves of what the early members of the church experienced in those glorious days with Jesus.

The Emmaus trail is a new collection of paths and trails between Jerusalem and Emmaus. It is designed to replicate the path taken by Jesus and the disciples and winds through some of the most beautiful scenery the Judea Hills has to offer. 
- Photo from https://saxum.org/

The trail begins at the Saxum Visitor Center in Abu Ghosh. This center is worth a visit all on its own, including a museum celebrating the life of Jesus. The displays include interactive 4D projections of holy sites across the country and different periods of time as well as traditional maps and models of local points of interest. The center actually opened in late 2019, just in time for the COVID crisis to tank Israel’s tourism industry. As such, both the center and trail are in pristine new condition, eagerly awaiting the return of Christian pilgrims looking to connect with biblical history.

The trail is broken into four separate legs to make navigation easy and take you to some interesting locations. After a brief walk on a paved road, the trail gives way to the first major leg through the JNF Netherlands Forest, a beautiful green oasis dotted with road signs in Hebrew, English, and Dutch. From there you can continue on to a road station dating back to the Roman and Byzantine days.  A little further on down the next leg, you can find Roman milestones. These stone pillars resemble a kind of shrunken down Stonehenge and were used to mark directions and distance by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago!

Continuing on this path, you’ll soon arrive in Spring Valley. This is the most densely packed area of the hike for historical sites, so be sure to bring one of those guide maps from the Visitor’s Center! Sites to see include a massive tomb carved from a block of stone with no other materials used. A masterclass in ancient stonemasonry. You’ll also find an ancient Roman bathhouse (something that historically would have been a common site on trails between major cities and ports like this back in biblical times), the remains of an ancient vineyard with its own winepress, and more. All of this leads to the final destination on the hike, the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis. This is a working monastery still attended to by nuns and monks surrounded by idyllic parklands and trees. A perfect place to rest after a long hike!

The Emmaus Trail is far from the only trail in Israel that allows you to retrace the steps of Jesus and his disciples, but it is an extremely pleasant option. In comparison to the ambitious 65 kilometer Jesus Trail that includes long exposed stretches, the Emmaus Trail is a brisk 30 kilometers and includes plenty of shaded portions and opportunities for rest stops. This makes it something that is easier to work into a trip to the Holy Land as you can either make a full day of it, or merely walk a portion before arranging a pickup along the way. A perfect way to connect to one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible while also taking in everything else Israel has to offer!

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