I find it strange that modern Christianity does not commonly understand the Christian life in terms of pilgrimage. Perhaps this is because of the ease and relative safety of modern travel which has made the concept of pilgrimage one that is hard for us to relate to. The theme of pilgrimage can be seen throughout the Bible. From the story of the Exodus to the return from exile. From the journeys of the Patriarchs to the Songs of Ascents (Ps. 120-134) which is the ancient songbook for pilgrims heading to Jerusalem. In the New Testament Peter picks up on the theme as he develops the language for followers of Christ as ‘citizens of heaven’ and ‘strangers in the world’. Paul also develops the image as he uses the phrase ‘ambassadors of Christ’. I think that to fail to understand the idea of Christians as pilgrims makes it difficult to understand our place in the world in which we live.
In the ancient world pilgrimage was difficult. It was expensive and often it was difficult to earn an income enroute. It was also dangerous. In the Middle East there are extremes in temperature between the heat of the day and the cold of night. There were wild animals which could attack especially in the night. Even during Pax Romana there was still the danger of meeting thieves. This is exactly the scenario that Jesus sets up in his parable of The Good Samaritan. Compare this to today’s world where it is possible to travel to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours with little inconvenience aside from the lack of legroom and some pretty ordinary plane food. Travel now is quick, it’s fairly inexpensive and fairly luxurious.
Given the difference between the struggles of ancient pilgrimage and ease of modern day travel, how is it possible to draw a connection for our lives today? At first sight it is difficult but when we consider Peter’s use of the concept of Christians as citizens of heaven we might find it a bit more enlightening. The focus and purpose of the journey is the destination. The dangers and struggles are part of the journey but the pilgrim never loses sight of where he is heading. For Jews this was Jerusalem. It was the place where they could encounter God and remind themselves again of the covenant He had made with them. In a real sense the act of pilgrimage reminds them that they are citizens of Jerusalem and a part of God’s chosen people.
Peter’s use of ‘citizens of heaven’ serves to connect us with ancient pilgrims. It reminds us that the world in which we live is not our destination but part of the journey, complete with times of danger and struggle. Peter’s pilgrimage motif helps us not to become bogged down in that which is around us but rather to look to heaven. In doing this the believer is able to anticipate and embrace what it means to be fully united with Christ. It connects us with our identity of being adopted by Christ and, since pilgrimage is always as a group, it helps to create a sense of community in Christ.
In my experience it is easy to be side tracked by the world around me whether it is by technology, the pursuit of pleasure or simply coffee at a cafe but understanding my walk with God in terms of pilgrimage helps give me perspective on what really matters. It helps me to be able to walk alongside a fellow believer and bring and receive encouragement. The ancient pilgrim was able to say ‘I lift me eyes up to the mountain, [most likely Jerusalem], where does my help come from?’ (Ps. 121:1). The modern Christian can say ‘I lift my eyes up to the heavens, where does my help come from?’ Both can say ‘My help comes from the LORD the maker of heaven and earth’ (Ps. 121:2).