“He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son.” — Colossians 1:13
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” — Philippians 3:20
From the days of the early Church, pilgrims have regularly traveled to Jerusalem to replicate the events of Holy Week, the last earthly days of Jesus. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem became a tradition as early as the fourth century when the emperor Constantine erected a basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, over what was reported to be the site of the Crucifixion. To worship at this and other holy sites from Jesus’ earthly life many Christians committed to a long and arduous journey to reach Jerusalem. These pilgrimages had a Lenten character, cleansing the pilgrims spiritually as they traveled the arduous journey which could sometimes take weeks, even months. Pilgrims would use the physical deprivations on the road to encourage themselves in their renunciation of evil and as an occasion for a fair amount of soul-searching and intense prayer. The Church continues to describe our observance of the season of Lent as a pilgrimage. In the invitation to Lent found in the service of Ash Wednesday, the celebrant invites us to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” These are the ingredients of our spiritual pilgrimage during the Season of Lent.
The primary purpose of a pilgrimage is change. A pilgrimage is a journey that changes us. As much as we don’t like it, change is a cardinal mark of every faithful Christian. God loves us too much to leave us as we are. Our sanctification takes place as we struggle with temptation and draw on his grace to repent and return to Him. We are called to live disciplined spiritual lives, and that is a good thing, though it is not always easy or pleasant. This transformation is a lifelong process. We are convicted, our hearts are pierced, we are dragged from our comfort zones, refined by the fire of the Holy Spirit, and made better in and through various means of spiritual transformation. Lenten exercises are intended to move us from self will into God’s will, to turn our attention from the things of this world and onto the way of life in the New Jerusalem. We seek to be transformed into the sorts of people who live lives of grace in Christ.
Scripture tells us that we are pilgrims and exiles on this earth—restless, homeless, and seeking to become less attached to earthly things. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “pilgrimage” derives from the root meaning to “reside temporarily,” and it was applied particularly to residence in a foreign land. And the Hebrew word for “pilgrim” means “sojourner” or “resident alien.” In the New Testament, the Greek term for “pilgrim” describes Christians whose final citizenship is in heaven, and who are regarded as temporary dwellers on earth.
As noted in the Scriptures quoted above, as Christians we are citizens of the New Jerusalem, but we currently find ourselves as resident aliens in the foreign environment of this secular world. And so we are pilgrims on a journey. We are sojourners moving from this physical world into the promised land of spiritual harmony with our God. We are citizens of Zion currently dwelling in a foreign land. And that was the circumstance of the Jewish exiles in the Old Testament who sang the Songs of Ascent we find in Psalms 120 through 134. Jerusalem was overrun in 597 BC and the Jews were taken to Babylon where they were held captive for seventy years. When the emperor Cyrus came to the throne, in 538 BC, he allowed the Jewish exiles to begin returning and rebuilding Jerusalem. As they made their way to the Holy City, they sang the songs of Zion, songs of ascent. These songs were also later used by the faithful as they made their way to the restored Jerusalem for the major feasts of the Temple. And we can use them now as songs of praise as we ascend toward the New Jerusalem of which we are citizens.
The Songs of Ascent have a logical progression moving us steadily from exile to union with God. These are songs of hope. They give us courage and direction in our journey. As we make our Lenten pilgrimage we will move progressively closer to our permanent home in the New Jerusalem. This week of Ash Wednesday, the meditations will set the stage for our journey. Then each week during Lent we will examine three Songs of Ascent. In week one we will explore what it means to live in exile. During the second week we will begin our journey. In the third week we will enter Zion. Our fourth week will give us direction on making the New Jerusalem our home. And the fifth week will be a celebration of praise in the Temple of the New Jerusalem. Finally, during Holy Week, we will meditate on what it means for us as Christians to truly be residents of the New Jerusalem.
We can learn much from those who made pilgrimages before us. For example, in 1522 St. Ignatius Loyola set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It took him over a year and a half to reach the Holy Land from his home in Spain. He made many stops on the way to seek guidance from Church elders, to meditate on Scripture, and to repent and pray. A true pilgrim must travel slowly and pause often to get where he wants to go. If Ignatius had rushed to Jerusalem he would not have been as well prepared to receive the joy God granted him in the Holy Land. But Ignatius took his time and arrived with an expectant heart, ready to receive God’s blessings. That pilgrimage changed his life. There is no journey more important than our Lenten pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. This is a time for us to slow our steps and take our time to walk the long road of Ascent. Pause often. Let God speak to you through the gift of these Psalms. This is God’s gift of time to prepare our hearts and come to realize that Jesus is with us and is speaking to us as we walk the road to Zion and ascend to the New Jerusalem.