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Pilgrims and strangers
We are pilgrims and the spiritual descendants of pilgrims, carrying on our own tradition of pilgrimage. We are spiritual wanderers from Father Abraham, a Bedouin herdsman to Moses, a wandering statesman to Elijah, a wandering troublemaker, to Jesus himself, an itinerant preacher, healer, and prophet. Jesus even spoke of what may have been his preference for the nomadic lifestyle saying, “The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. The pilgrim life, it seems, is in the DNA of Jesus’ disciples, with the Holy Spirit as our guide and the road under our feet.
While we consider ourselves by scientific definition homo sapiens or thinking man, the truth is, we may do better to call ourselves homo ambulans or walking man as quite often we find ourselves seeking to travel. When things go wrong and we need to sort it out, we go for a walk to clear our head or we sometimes in moments of stress have to think on our feet. Being on our feet is an extension of our humanity and is a large part of what makes us what we are. Pilgrimage then, is not only in our spiritual blood, it is in the very fabric of our being.
Pilgrimage was also a large part of Israel’s worship traditions. Several times a year, major festivals were held in Jerusalem – Passover, Shauvot, and Sukkot – which required the people to walk in from the countryside and gather for worship and sacrifice in the Temple. Several Psalms, known as the Songs of Ascent, were written as pilgrim chants or sing-a-longs as they climbed from places like Jericho, Emmaus, and Hebron up the 3,000-foot hill that led to the city and the Temple Mount.
This tradition of pilgrimage is one common to the Jewish people: the journey from Egypt to Canaan in Exodus six, the return from Exile in 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and even the Hall of faith chapter, Hebrews 11, refers to those who were our Hebrew spiritual parents as “strangers and pilgrims.” We are by nature and spiritual calling pilgrims and wanderers through this life.
One aspect of pilgrimage that is often overlooked is that of sacrifice. This wasn’t a frivolous, spur of the moment decision to wander off for a few weeks or months, this was a well-planned, thought out process of preparation and cost. For those who go on a pilgrimage, there is a great deal time and resources that must be given up in order to travel these great distances. For those in ancient times, others may have to be paid to watch over their lands and protect their homes and farms. Not to mention the possibility of being on the open road exposed to bandits, adverse weather, wild animals, and other dangers. Pilgrimage was not something to be undertaken lightly.
The Jerusalem pilgrimage
If you go to Israel today, you can walk on the paths Jesus took as recorded in the gospels, something called The Jesus Trail. The hiking path follows similar routes that Jesus may well have taken as he crisscrossed the Galilean landscape. As we watch the drama of Mark unfold, we have been on pilgrimage with Jesus and his disciples through their three-year journey together. And it has been quite a journey. From the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan River to graveyard of Gennesaret to the shores of the Galilean Sea and all points from Nazareth to Jerusalem, Mark’s story has been one of physical and spiritual journeying. At each turn, each juncture, the disciples are taught a little more and sometimes, they actually learn a little as they try to wrap their heads around this new way of living and being, this new message from the Nazarene prophet.
In Mark 10, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the part of the pilgrimage that leads to his death. Three times, once each in chapters eight through ten, Jesus speaks of his suffering and dying to the unhearing ears of his disciples who can’t wrap their heads around a Messiah who loses to win. All they can see is Jesus’ unearthly wisdom, miraculous power, divine glory, and the return of Israel to an independent, sovereign nation. While they look in the wrong direction for the wrong thing, Jesus is looking at an impending date with a cross and a tomb.
Jesus journey with his disciples has led them all to a bittersweet place: a parade. Bitter because Jesus knows that this parade coming in from the east, rather than the Roman parade from the west, is as much funerary as celebratory. The Romans coming from the west bring the might of Caesar to keep the unruly Jews of Judea in line at what is usually one of their most unruly times historically speaking. And this is not without good reason and precedent. Less than forty years before, a riot turned into an uprising in Jerusalem and had to be put down, thus the yearly pilgrimage of the Roman military from Caesarea Maritima in the west.
In fact, this very celebration of these pilgrims in Mark 10 has an air of revolution to it. The branches and cloaks spread on the ground assume Jesus comes to confront the power of Rome with his own revolutionary uprising. The meaning of their shouts of joy and acclamation in Aramaic would properly be translated, “Welcome in the name of the Lord! Welcome to the kingdom of our ancestor David!” These are shouts for Jesus to be the military leader of earthly power and might who will return Judea and all of Israel to its rightful owners. The pilgrims with Jesus misunderstand the Kingdom of God as something of this world and the world systems. It is a parade of the blind in celebration of the wrong kingdom for the wrong reasons.
But it also a sweet celebration, Consider the joy of the people as they lift their hands and voices along the road, a moving party with singing and dancing. The people, friends and families, have been gathering from the towns and villages of the countryside, making the three-thousand-foot climb and singing the old songs and old hymns of their people. These songs speak of God’s love, faithfulness, and care for his people. They are songs of hope: hope vested in the season of deliverance known as Passover, hope in a potential deliverer in Jesus. They see this man, this Galilean carpenter, this itinerant preacher/prophet/healer/miracle worker as Elijah and Moses all rolled into one. And to them, he has come to Jerusalem to face down Rome and deliver them from foreign tyrants.
What they didn’t see was that this is the sacrificial part of Jesus’ journey. This was the part where Jesus had to stare into the face of death, sure of his trust in God but unsure of what that might look like or what he might experience. Consider his words in the garden later in the week,
“Abba, father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Jesus was no fool and very much human. He knew that the price of his pilgrimage was going to be costly and painfully so. He knew the pilgrimage would travel to places that no one in their right mind would want to go and yet it was part of the journey, difficult though it may be. Despite this, he kept walking, kept carrying on with his voyage of faith with trust in the Father to help him see it through.
As we look at this moment from the vantage point of history, we are looking at a myriad of pilgrimages with a myriad of reasons for being on them, each from different places, each with differing experiences. In the same way that Peter, John, Judas, and Levi all had different experiences with Jesus, each other, and the people they encountered, we too have our experiences on the journey with Jesus and those around us, our own pilgrimages. My pilgrimage of faith has taken me on a journey across the United States over the course of thirty years. Like everyone else, and our friends in the story, I have seen much, learned some, failed to learn some, and became someone completely different than the person I was when I started. The fifteen-year-old teenager is in no way the forty-seven-year-old man. If we truly seek to be a pilgrim, truly work to live into the Kingdom way of life, we will be changed, transformed. Each of us, sometimes in great ways, sometimes small, is affected by the road and what we encounter. And the paths we choose as we attempt to follow the Spirit of God or sometimes not so much have a profound effect on the people we are becoming.
As we deal with current challenges before us and consider the story of Palm Sunday, ask yourself a few questions: How has my journey changed me? Has it really changed me? If it’s been a true pilgrimage, it should have. If not, why not? What were the wrong turns in the road? Where might I have gone differently, done differently? The wonderful thing about pilgrimage is it is never too late to change direction – the truest definition of repentance that I can think of. You may find yourself being led to greener pastures, harder climbs, or most likely both. Whatever the journey, you’ll be better in the long run, especially if you take to it as a wanderer and face life as it comes.
Find you path. Walk your path. Be a pilgrim.