In my new book, 3000 Miles to Jesus, I make the case that we are all pilgrims on the Jerusalem road. The book traces the journey of three pilgrims who made their way to the Holy Land in the 15th century. By following these travelers, we come to understand our biblical identity as strangers and sojourners on the earth.
I find it especially meaningful to think about pilgrimage during Lent and Holy Week, when, in our minds and hearts, we journey to Jerusalem as we ponder and pray through Jesus’ last days. You can read more about our Lenten pilgrimage in my recent Christianity Today article.
But there’s another side of pilgrimage I haven’t talked much about.
Did you know that Jesus himself was a pilgrim? On Palm Sunday, we commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But we don’t often ponder the lengthy that journey preceded this event. In fact, Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage, undertaken to celebrate Passover in the holy city. The Hebrew Bible instructs Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover (and two other feasts as well). Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, traveled to Jerusalem every Passover (Luke 2:41–43), as did many others. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that during the Second Temple period, the number of Passover pilgrims totaled “not less than three millions.”
During his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus uttered many of his well-known parables and teachings, including his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples (Luke 11:-2–4). So, if you think about it, many of Jesus’ lessons are “pilgrimage lessons”– wisdom of the road.
What was this final, momentous pilgrimage like? When he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” Jesus was in Capernaum. The shortest route led due south through Samaria. But because the Samaritans would not receive Jesus, he took a more roundabout way, going east through Peraea. Before leading to Jerusalem, this route crossed the Jordan River and passed through Jericho, Bethany, and Bethphage, where Jesus stayed at the house of Mary and Martha.
From Jericho to Jerusalem, this pilgrimage road leads through the Judean wilderness. It was probably only a day’s journey, but the route ascends about 4000 feet and is fairly rugged. I imagine it thronging with pilgrims who would then pour into Jerusalem and begin purification and preparation for Passover. Some of these pilgrims were surely among the “crowds” that Scripture mentions Jesus teaching along the way to Jerusalem.
In this final journey, Jesus models many of the traits we see in the medieval pilgrims I explore in my book. He had perseverance, taking a long route and enduring wilderness conditions. He traveled in poverty, frequently eating or staying at others’ homes (for example, Zacchaeus’s house and Mary and Martha’s house). And, despite the longer route and the time he took to teach along the way, he focused relentlessly on the goal of his pilgrimage. He resolutely “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
But Jesus, of course, is far more than a model. His pilgrimage is bound up in our salvation. Before traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled to earth and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Leaving his heavenly glory, he was a sojourner in ways that we will never be. His earthly journeys always had a bigger goal–that of showing us the way to the Father (John 14:2–6)–the way home. Nicholas T. Batzig says in an article on pilgrimage that “Jesus is the heavenly Sojourner, traveling through the foreign land of this fallen world to the eternal inheritance He came to possess by way of the cross.”
We love because Jesus first loved us. And we pilgrim because he first pilgrimed for us. I wish you a good journey during the next few days from the bright darkness of Holy Week to the light of resurrection.
This week, we’re praying a prayer written by contemporary author Rachel Marie Stone. It looks ahead to the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.
Lord God, You sent your Son into the world, And before his hour had come, He washed his disciples’ feet. You had given all things into his hands. He had come from you, and was going to you, And what did he do? He knelt down on the floor, And washed his friends’ feet. He was their teacher and their Lord, Yet he washed their feet. Lord God, help us learn from his example; Help us to do as he has done for us. The world will know we are his disciples If we love one another. Strengthen our hands and our wills for love And for service. Keep before our eyes the image of your Son, Who, being God, became a Servant for our sake. All glory be to him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
This week we’re praying with Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), a Mexican American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist. The prayer below reflects his belief in the dignity of all people and the need to come together in prayer, justice, and community. Cesar Chavez Day is coming up on March 31.
Chavez’s prayer is a good one for the season of Lent, when we reflect on where we are going in our spiritual lives and how we might be more present to the suffering and needs of those around us.
Show me the suffering of the most miserable; So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others; For you are present in every person.
Help me take responsibility for my own life; So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others; For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience; So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration; So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow; So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice; For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us; So we can change the world.
This week, I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote that was published in Plough Magazine on Monday. I wrote the essay to express the frustration I/we often feel in this time of Covid and the inbetweenness that marks our life during the pandemic, during Lent . . . and during our time on earth. I hope you enjoy it!
Last fall, during one of the many pandemic surges in our area, my two daughters and I took a day trip to Grandfather Mountain State Park. We came across a small river, whose name I no longer recall. My city girls will use any excuse to stop hiking, so I let them pause at the water’s edge and remember what it’s like to play, free and unencumbered. It would have been better to keep walking though; I’d forgotten that standing still gives me too much time to think. Watching my girls on the riverbank, tossing stones and exploring the ecosystem, I ached for them. I ached for the season they are living through, the upheaval and the fear and the isolation. As my daughters played and I mused, the river flowed on, like a timeline I wished I could travel to a better place.
If I followed the river many eons back, perhaps I would encounter the earth’s mother river, the one that fed the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10). There wouldn’t be any aching along those banks, surely . . .
On more than one occasion, Augustine spoke of the soul as a house — a place where God dwells, a place that is under construction for most of our life. I’ve always loved the beautiful prayer below, from the Confessions, and find it a good one for the season of Lent.
The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. It lies in ruins: rebuild it. Some things are to be found there which will offend your gaze; I confess this to be so and know it well. But who will clean my house? To whom but yourself can I cry, “Cleanse me of my hidden sins, O Lord, and for those encurred through others, pardon your servant“? I believe, and so I will speak. You know everything, Lord. Have I not laid my own transgressions bare before you to my own condemnation, my God, and have not you forgiven the wickedness of my heart? I do not argue my case against you, for you are truth itself; nor do I wish to deceive myself, lest my iniquity be caught in its own lies. No, I do not argue the case with you, because if you, Lord, keep score of our iniquities, then who, Lord, can bear it?
This very moving and honest prayer comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison. We might use it to cry out to God during Lent or other times when we come to the end of ourselves and cannot see the way forward.
God, I call to you early in the morning, help me pray and collect my thoughts, I cannot do so alone.
In me it is dark, but with you there is light. I am lonely, but you do not abandon me. I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help. I am restless, but with you is peace. In me is bitterness, but with you is patience. I do not understand your ways, but you know the right way for me.