Matthew 2: 1- 2
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Lord God, like pilgrim’s of old we come now on a journey to a Holy Land. The question on their lips is the prayer we lift up on our hearts: “Where is he that was born here, King of Kings?” We come seeking Jesus Christ, and pray that his presence would be made known to us in fellowship, encounter, reality, and mystery. As you guided them with a star guide our pilgrimage as well. We pray for safety and welfare, for ourselves in this journey, for those we love that remain at home, and for this world that you loved so much you sent your Son in whose name we pray.”
What is a pilgrimage?
How is it different than a trip?
Typically, it is a journey to a place, shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. Many religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: the place of birth or death of founders or saints, or to the place of their “calling” or spiritual awakening, or of their connection (visual or verbal) with the divine, to locations where miracles were performed or witnessed, or locations where a deity is said to live or be “housed,” or any site that is seen to have special spiritual powers. Such sites may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim.
The Holy Land acts as a focal point for the pilgrimages of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a Stockholm University study in 2011, these pilgrims visit the Holy Land to touch and see physical manifestations of their faith, confirm their beliefs in the holy context with collective excitation, and connect personally to the Holy Land.
Christian pilgrimage was first made to sites connected with the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Aside from the early example of Origen in the third century, surviving descriptions of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land date from the 4th century, when pilgrimage was encouraged by church fathers including Saint Jerome, and established by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.
Pilgrimages were, and are, also made to Rome and other sites associated with the apostles, saints and Christian martyrs, as well as to places where there have been apparitions of the Virgin Mary. A popular pilgrimage site is along the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, to the shrine of the apostle James. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales recounts tales told by Christian pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of Thomas Becket.
The first pilgrimages were made to sites connected with the ministry of Jesus. Aside from the early example of Origen, who “in search of the traces of Jesus, the disciples and the prophets”, already found local folk prompt to show him the actual location of the Gadarene swine in the mid-3rd century, surviving descriptions of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Jerusalem date from the 4th century. The Itinerarium Burdigalense (“Bordeaux Itinerary”), the oldest surviving Christian itinerarium, was written by the anonymous “Pilgrim of Bordeaux” recounting the stages of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 333 and 334. Pilgrimage was encouraged by church fathers like Saint Jerome and established by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. Pilgrimages also began to be made to Rome and other sites associated with the Apostles, Saints and Christian martyrs, as well as to places where there have been apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrimage to Rome became a common destination for pilgrims from throughout Western Christianity in the medieval period, and important sites were listed in travel-guides such as the 12th-century Mirabilia Urbis Romae.
In the 7th century, the Holy Land fell to the Muslim conquests, and as pilgrimage to the Holy Land now became more difficult for European Christians, major pilgrimage sites developed in Western Europe, notably Santiago de Compostela in the 9th century.
Political relationships between the Muslim caliphates and the Christian kingdoms of Europe remained in a state of suspended truce, allowing the continuation of Christian pilgrimages into Muslim-controlled lands, at least in intervals; for example, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, only to have his successor allow the Byzantine Empire to rebuild it.The Seljuk Turks now systematically disrupted Christian pilgrimage routes, which became one of the major factors triggering the crusades later in the 11th century.
The crusades were at first a success, the Crusader states, especially the kingdom of Jerusalem, guaranteeing safe access to the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims during the 12th century, but the enterprise of the crusades was ultimately doomed to failure, and the Holy Land was entirely re-conquered by the Ayyubids by the end of the 13th century.
Under the Ottoman Empire travel in Palestine was once again restricted and dangerous. Modern pilgrimages in the Holy Land may be said to have received an early impetus from the scholar Ernest Renan, whose twenty-four days in Palestine, recounted in his Vie de Jésus (published 1863) found the resonance of the New Testament at every turn.
The Psalms are songs. They were sung by the people in their homes and by the choirs in the temple in Jerusalem. Some Psalms were sung by pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and the temple. Many people from all parts of the Holy Land journeyed up to the great city each year to the feasts, especially to the Passover in the spring and to the Feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast in the autumn. At these seasons, companies of happy people from one town and another met and journeyed on together. The Lord with Mary and Joseph and the friends from Nazareth went with such a company when the Lord was twelve years old. (Luke 2:41-52) Also, large companies of people who had been captives in Babylon journeyed back to Jerusalem when they were set free and allowed to do so. Their happiness made the long way seem easy. We think of these companies journeying up to Jerusalem and the temple when we read Ps. 84.
We have in our Book of Psalms some songs which the happy pilgrims sang on their journeys to Jerusalem and the temple. There is a group of fifteen Psalms (Ps. 120-134) which we may call Pilgrim Psalms. You know some of these Psalms, and you will love them all the more as you think of the happy pilgrims singing them as they journeyed up together to Jerusalem and the temple. Perhaps some of them were sung by the company with whom the Lord went up from Nazareth when He was twelve years old. “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”
“Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord.”
The Pilgrim Psalms are a group of fifteen Psalms following the long 119th Psalm. Over each of these Psalms is the title “A Psalm of Degrees” or “of Ascents.” As we read these Psalms, we see that they are songs of pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem. Pilgrims went up to the feasts kept in Jerusalem each year: the Passover in the spring, the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits, fifty days later, and the thanksgiving Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn. (Deut. 16:16) We have learned, too, of a great company who had been captives in Babylon who journeyed back to Jerusalem when they were allowed to do so. (Ezra 1 and 2)
As we read the Pilgrim Psalms, they suggest the going up to Jerusalem, as does Ps. 84. Ps. 120 expresses distress from living among strange people. Then Ps. 121, which we love, about looking up to the hills. This would mean for the pilgrims especially the hills of Jerusalem. In Ps. 122, we have the glad call to go to the temple and the prayer for peace to the Lord’s house. The looking to the Lord and trusting the Lord (Ps. 123-131) grows stronger with the pilgrims as they journey on. They think of peace in the Lord’s house and of blessings for their own homes and for their harvests, which will come from Him. Ps. 132 reminds us of David’s bringing up the ark to Zion, the same event which is celebrated in Ps. 24. In Ps. 134, the pilgrims have reached the end of their journey and lift up their hands in the temple to bless the Lord.