The Rev. Canon Maria Tjeltveit
Church of the Mediator, Allentown
The Biblical Hebrew word translated “pilgrimage” in the King James translation of the Bible is based on the verb (gur) to “sojourn”—to dwell for a definite or indefinite time, to abide as a new-comer without original rights. So, in Biblical terms, pilgrimage is more about staying in one place, but not being of that place, than it is about moving.
On the other hand, we think of pilgrimage as being about moving, going from one place to another. In the Jewish tradition, the specific pilgrimage to Jerusalem is called Aliya larāgel, which literally means to “go up (Aliya) with the legs (or feet).” This pilgrimage is an occasion for which people pick up their feet and go somewhere.
As we enter into this time of pilgrimage, both the images of picking up our feet and going somewhere—setting out on a journey of faith—and dwelling in a place where we may not be entirely at home, can speak to us in our diocese.
If we think of pilgrimage as a journey, especially a religious journey, the Bible is full of people on pilgrimage:
In Advent, we focus on the pilgrimage of a people returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. They journey back to a place that will not be the same as when they left it, but still will be a homecoming.
As we move from Advent to Christmas, we think of the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Joseph’s ancestral home. It is also a journey into new life, which may or may not be welcomed.
Christmas into Epiphany has two different kinds of pilgrimage, one of hope and praise, and the other of fear and protection. The magi are on a pilgrimage to find the one born king of the Jews; guided by a star to worship this infant. Their journey leads to the pilgrimage of the holy family, becoming refugees in Egypt, driven from their home by fear of political persecution, and by the protecting words of an angel. Years later there is another pilgrimage back to a new home in Nazareth.
We also remember the pilgrimage that Mary, Joseph, and the adolescent Jesus made to Jerusalem (their Aliya), and the parents’ realization that they had left Jesus behind on their return trip.
In Lent, we focus on the pilgrimage that shapes so much of Jewish and Christian faith: the pilgrimage of the Exodus. In this pilgrimage, God goes before the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It is a long journey to the promised land, filled with adventures and miss-adventures.
In Lent, we also focus on the pilgrimage of Jesus, who “set his face toward Jerusalem”; the pilgrimage that led to the cross and the tomb.
In Easter we hear the pilgrimage of the early Church, as they go from the empty tomb, to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends to the earth. We think particularly of Paul and his missionary journeys, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
On the Day of Pentecost, we may wonder about the pilgrimages of all those who had gathered in Jerusalem, from all over the known world. With what hopes did they journey there, and what new hope filled their journey back to their homes, after they heard the disciples’ praise of God in all different languages?
The Season after Pentecost is filled with stories of pilgrimage, Elijah on pilgrimage away from Jezebel, Naaman on pilgrimage to find healing; Jesus sending out 70 in pilgrimage to teach and to heal; Jeremiah telling the people that their pilgrimage into exile is what God wants for them.
The Rev. John Peterson, when he was Dean of St. George’s College, Jerusalem, said, “Holy people move.” We think of Abraham who began the pilgrimage of faith when God told him to go where God would show him. Our pilgrimage of faith is also leading us to a place where we do not know, but pray that God will show us.
Our invitation to pilgrimage, since most of us are not physically moving from place to place, is to experience our life as a pilgrim, or sojourner. We hold lightly to the things around us, not being completely at home, so that, in prayer and reflection, we can move toward God’s promises and know that God goes with us.
“Thou art the journey and the journey’s end.” –Boethius c.480-542
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