You might remember from our Pilgrimage 101: A Brief History post a while back that the spiritual practice of pilgrimage finds its roots in faith, beginning with Abraham (at least in the tradition of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Even if you haven’t had your history lesson, perhaps you just know this to be true – you feel it in your bones. I know I do. It is my belief that pilgrimage is built within the fabric of humanity, both individually and collectively.
We can discover this for ourselves when we look at our stories (again, individually and collectively) through the lens of pilgrimage. It is a lens that, when applied, will color everything you see, including your journeys and daily life, the books you read and movies you love, and even the way you look at history. Everything seems connected when you view things through the lens of pilgrimage.
Today, to start to play with what it’s like to see things through the lens of pilgrimage, I’m going to loosely trace its theme throughout the Bible (it still is the Easter season, after all!). I’m giving you a retelling of the Old Testament through the lens of pilgrimage for free (download it below).
Alright. Comfy chair? Check. Morning brew? Check. Let’s begin then, shall we?
The theme of journey in human spirituality is strongly evident when the Bible is read through a lens of pilgrimage, starting with the very first book. This is seen particularly through Abraham, a devout man who was blessed by God as the father of many nations, including Israel (read more here). Abraham is also considered to be the father of the practice of pilgrimage because of his journey to Canaan, leaving all he knew to follow the divine calling of God faithfully to a foreign land. Imagine that! As generations continued to seek God, the Israelites looked to Abraham as a figure who, though fearful, followed God on a pilgrimage of faith.
Similar to Abraham’s experience, the pilgrimages of the Israelites evoked sacred encounters with God, and in turn, the Israelites’ sacred encounters with God prompted pilgrimages. After a forty-year pilgrimage of their own to the Promised Land, the nation of Israel chose to commemorate their saving encounters with God through pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God. Each year, pilgrims would journey to the holy city for Passover, the Feast of the Weeks, and the Feast of the Tabernacles, remembering these sacred encounters (in fact, the Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134, come from these pilgrimages).
Just as the Israelites made pilgrimages to the dwelling place of God, the New Testament tells of God fully entering the dwelling place of His people through Jesus. In Pilgrimage: Meditations on a Journey of Faith, author Patricia D. Brown describes the Incarnation as an “initial venture…from the heart of God into the heart of our human reality.” That’s right – the theme of pilgrimage can even be found in the heart of Christianity – Emmanuel, “God with us.”
“[The Incarnation is an] initial venture…from the heart
of God into the heart of our human reality.”
The life of Jesus, from birth until death, is filled with both literal pilgrimage and imagery of journey, beginning with the Magi. In their search for the Christ child, the Magi can be considered the first Christian pilgrims (now that you relate to them a bit more, you’ll be putting them in a more prominent place this year in your nativity, won’t you?).
The only account of Jesus as a child is one of sacred journey: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. The significance of this pilgrimage destination is evident to Jesus, as he could not help but stay (a fact unknown to his parents as they began the journey home). Something deep was drawing him near: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” he asked.
Something deep was drawing him near:
“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
In his ministry, Jesus travels from town to town, healing the sick, casting out demons, and declaring that the kingdom of God is at hand. Many of his disciples and followers leave everything behind to follow him. Jesus even sends his disciples out from the group to share his message elsewhere, and in his instruction sets the tone for the pilgrim’s journey by encouraging them to engage in the particular places they encounter along the way, for all they need could be found there.
Toward the end of Jesus’ life we find that his entire ministry was not only a journey around Israel and Galilee – it was a pilgrimage toward redemption, to the cross and Resurrection. We again find that the Gospels are shaped by Jewish pilgrimage practices as Jesus enters his final destination – Jerusalem, the holy city – just in time for the Passover feast.
The pilgrims in the city welcome Jesus, without knowing that he would soon become the new Passover Lamb. Each step is intentional, each movement sacred as Jesus prepares for what is to come. From the celebration of the Passover Feast in the upper room to the heart wrenching prayers in Gethsemane, the final moments until Jesus’ crucifixion are filled with ritual and deep desire for the Divine.
In his last hours, Jesus makes a final journey filled with humiliation and shame, mocked and costumed as the “King of the Jews,” as his cross is carried alongside him to Golgotha, the place of his death.
Is it any surprise, seeing how the life and ministry of Jesus are intertwined with pilgrimage, that on the very day of the Resurrection, even before appearing to the twelve disciples, we find Jesus on the road to Emmaus in conversation with two men about the things of God? No doubt they are not the only ones who have encountered Jesus while on a journey, saying,
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he
[was] with us on the road?”
Though Jesus’ literal journey on earth was drawing to an end, the Holy Spirit continued to kindle the hearts of followers on their own journeys. The Incarnation solidified the spirit of pilgrimage in the hearts of Christians. Those who were once taking pilgrimages to Jerusalem as faithful Jews were now pilgrims on a journey of redemption.
So what do you think? Can you see the theme of pilgrimage woven throughout the Bible? In the story of humanity? In your own story?
Click on the image below to download Pilgrimage in the Bible: An Old Testament Retelling (PDF). No matter what you believe, it is the story of a sacred journey (and at 18 pages, it’s only a fraction of the size of the Old Testament!).