"I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me." This was the great cry of Jesus. Reflecting on this, W. H. Auden, the English poet of our times wrote:
"He is the way, follow Him through the land of unlikeness. You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. He is the Truth. Seek Him the Kingdom of Anxiety. You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life. Love in the world of flesh. And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy."
Jerusalem, where I live receives millions of pilgrims every year. Christian, Jews, Moslems. Most Christian pilgrims stay for a few days at one or the other Pilgrim Guest Houses run by the many churches in the Holy City. Most visit Jerusalem as part of a package tour of the Holy Land and in their pilgrimage visit other sites holy to our Faith -- Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, the Mountain of Transfiguration, the Sea of Galilee, Beer Sheva, Caesarea, Maratima, Mt. Carmel, Meggido and so on. For most there are fleeting visits made in hope of touching something of their own deep faith.
There seems to be three kinds of pilgrims in the Christian tradition -- Orthodox that is, Easter church believers, Latins or Catholics and Protestants. For Orthodox pilgrims there is a sense of visiting the Holy Sites, particularly the Holy Sepulchre, or as it is known in Orthodoxy the Church of the Resurrection, once as kind of preparation for continuing life in the kingdom of God after death in this world.
For Catholics there is the sense of touching the holy place and bringing away from it some relic or talisman, perhaps a stone or a flask of water from the Jordan River, or a cross made out of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane, as a constant reminder of the connection once made with the place where Jesus lived, preached and taught.
For Protestants, it seems to me, pilgrimage affirms the intellectual faith, upholds and substantiates what one has always known about Jesus so that the Jesus of history becomes the Christ of Faith. There is, of course, a great deal about this kind of integration in the "Jesus Seminar" and volumes of contemporary literature abound.
Pilgrimage reflects in our own life the faith journey of our ancestors in the faith -- Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Ruth, Job, Elijah -- a moving from an older order to a newer creation. In the journey from bondage to freedom, a journey from chronological time to Kairos -- God's time, through pilgrimage one touches the essential inner self. The holy things and places of pilgrimage put one's soul in touch with her own origins, the return from where we are to where we have come from, that place to which we shall in the end return again in the future.
This is true for all people of all religions, not only for those of the three Abrahamic Faiths, but also for Buddhists, Hindus, Australian Aborigines, North American Indians, Aztecs, Incas and primitive peoples of every race.
In our Lord's own day his own people, the Jews, came up to Jerusalem for the Great Feast -- for Passover, symbolizing the Exodus; for Pentecost, the giving to Torah (the Law) and the first fruits; for Hanukkah, the feast of the dedication of the temple; the annual remembrance of the cleansing of the temple under the second century BCE Maccabees; and for the Feast of Sukkoth which commemorates the forty years' wanderings in the wilderness where the people lived in booths.
Jesus came up to these feasts during His lifetime and in order to understand the ministry of Jesus in His own time we need to understand the meaning of these feasts and the importance of them today in comprehending His Gospel.
The religion of Jesus may seem to have been a deep religious rivalry between the Pharisees, or the people of the synagogue, on the one hand and the Sadducees, the descendants of Zadok, the priest, on the other. In other words it was a rivalry between tent and tempt. All around Jerusalem for the great feasts were pitched tents "Thither the tribes of the Lord go up..." I was glad when they said unto me, ?let us go the House of the Lord."
As I have walked round the walls of Jerusalem I have often wondered at that scene with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims encircling the Holy City, flowing down the great valleys and up the slopes of Mount Zion, and Jesus in the midst proclaiming God's love for all -- Pharisee and Sadducee alike, Herodian and Zealot, Essene and Gentile.
What a marvelous spectacle that would have been. And what a marvelous spectacle it still is for us Christians as every year at Easter our tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord from Egypt, from Ethiopia, from all over the world to witness to the glorious resurrection. I shall always carry in my heart the scene on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre last year when with Anne, my wife, and two friends we walked among the white clad gentle praying forms of Ethiopian pilgrims in the late hours of Saturday night awaiting the hours when death's terror is pierced, the stone rolled back and Christ steps majestically out of the jaws of hell.
I have often wondered during his own life, in those hidden years between the ages of twelve and thirty, whether Jesus himself set out from Jerusalem and headed south by way of Beer Sheve to Horeb, the Mountain of God, to Sinai and the place Moses' Well and the Burning Bush. There is no tradition that I know of that says he ever did, but I have in my mind's eye as I have taken the journey myself now nine or ten times whether I am not walking in his way there as he may have walked in the way of Elijah, the Prophet down to Sinai and in the steps of Moses and Joshua up from Sinai north to the Promised Land.
What a story that would make! And indeed what a journey from the city to the desert, from Jerusalem to Sinai. We speak of desert as though it is some awful, dreadful, lonely, inhospitable empty place. This is far from the truth. Awful, dreadful lonely inhospitable empty places are manÂmade -- such as we may call the places of beggars and the desperate unemployed men, women and youth of our megaÂcities. The cities of this end of modernity are filled with the hopeless cries of the unloved and the unwanted. They are cruel places, destructions of no longer used clothing and charitable soup kitchens, hideouts for drug pushers and their unfortunate users; empty doorways in which to sleep, undignified cardboard and burlap housings for the poor and homeless; reflections of the cities and tours of disaster of the Holy Land's West Bank Here the land flowing with milk also groans under the weight of untreated sewage. Without pilgrimage the soul perishes.
But who will lead the pilgrims? Who will call people into pilgrimage? I understand that in the culture and tradition of those who were enslaved here in the United States, brought from many parts of Africa, their souls were sustained in their bondage by their songs of pilgrimage.
I know this is also true for many people of Palestine who, because of the closure to the border with Israel, are unable to make their pilgrimage to celebrate the holy feasts. I certainly know this to be true for may of our fellow Christians in the Holy Land who were not able to get to the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate the glorious resurrection of the Pilgrim Christ this year.
All pilgrimage is a freedom road. It is part of our witness, our Christian obligation and duty to set captives free and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
The world is still subject to slavery, bondage, occupation and imprisonment. We should not sleep soundly while one of God's children is held captive. Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage for Christians, Jews and Moslems, will one day be the place of free areas for all people.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, outside the Edicule that houses the empty tomb, is a curious urn set on a black and white marble floor. This urn marks the center of the world and in one form or another has stood there for countless centuries.
It marks the place where the Almighty Creator first spoke the word that called all things out of nothingness; the spot out of which constellations spun at the Big Bang; where the waters above the firmament separated from the waters below the firmament; where heaven and earth parted; where land and water divided; where out of the unity of God flowed all those opposites that make for the harmony of the universe.
Nearby is Golgotha, the place of the skull -- Adam's skull -- for here in the tradition of the three great Abrahamic Faiths Adam was buried. Here the broken crucified body of the Savior was laid and here God raised him from the dead! Golgotha is Christ's Sinai from where he received the Divine self-Âemptying law of love and gave it to the world.
This is the heart of pilgrimage. To this place in spirit came Moses and Elijah and all the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs. And here too in spirit come all those who are denied justice, freedom and dignity. Here it is we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, not peace such as the world knows it as absence of conflict, but peace which passes our human understanding and makes us brothers and sisters of the one who alone can bring time peace.
He is the way. Follow him through this land of unlikeness -- unlike anywhere else on God's earth -- and we see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. In the midst of tensions and anxieties of every kind we discover this great city Jerusalem, mother of us all.
He is the Life. We love him in all he sets before us and in loving him we discover the unity of all things in this world and the next. Jerusalem is mother city to all God's children. It must even remain thus.