Pilgrimage? What’s with pilgrimage? If God is everywhere why go to a war zone to pray? First, it is safer than most people think. The south side of Chicago? Now that’s dangerous. The Holy Land? Pretty safe. They pay attention there and pilgrims are everybody’s bread and butter, so it’s a lot safer than a major American city. Still why Pilgrimage? Well. We’ve been doing it for a very long time. Such early teachers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus Julius Africanus and Origen talk about the sacred sites, those places associated with the life of Jesus.
Origen, Julius and Justin were all residents of the Holy Land within the first centuries of the life of Jesus. The Holy Shrines were well known and well visited even in the first centuries after Christ. Were they different from us? People were visiting Civil War battlefields before the Civil War in the United States was even over. People just like us wrote journals about their travels. We have the Bordeaux Pilgrim and his itinerary, the oldest known Christian pilgrimage journal which recounts a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 333 AD. It sounds a lot like some modern itineraries, “It’s Tuesday. We’re in Venice.”, but still it is an account of the urge to go on pilgrimage.
Then there is Egeria, a devout woman, who left us a detailed account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land around 380 AD.The most amazing pilgrimage evidence for me is the Domine Ivimus graffito (Lord we have come.) It is an ancient graffito of a typical Roman ship carved into the rock of an ancient Roman wall that had been built over the site of Calvary. It seems to paraphrase the 122nd Psalm “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”. It may well come from the first century after Christ. Some scholars would put it later, but I suspect that it was there before a church was built over the site of Calvary and the tomb of Christ in 325 AD.
People have doing this since the beginning. Pilgrimage is commanded in the Old Testament. People were to go up to Jerusalem three times a year if they were able. So, we’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s still not much of a reason. There is a great distinction between religious pilgrimage and religious tourism. A pilgrimage is motivated by a desire to draw nearer to the Lord by drawing near to the places where the Lord appeared among us. God is everywhere, it is true, but to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to “read” what Fr. Bargil Pixner described as the Fifth Gospel – the Gospel of the Land.
When one sees the places, the fields, the flowers and the towns in which the Word of God walked and spoke, there is a sense that these things did not happen “… long ago, in a place far, far away,” but in a place about nine hours away by jet in a land that is as venal, commercial and crowded as it was when the Savior walked there and spoke the words that change our lives.
One can draw close to the Lord in pilgrimage in a way that is different from all others. It is not very mystical. It is wonderfully ordinary and chaotic, but if one pauses and looks and listens, it is possible to sense that this is the place, these are the people, we are the people with all our ordinariness that the Lord loves. There is an old wooden bench in front of the tomb of Christ where I can sit for hours just watching the world go by and remembering that God so loved the world, a crazy imperfect world of which I am most certainly a part.