Pilgrimage – Part 1

We have chosen to include pilgrimage in our youth programme and I will explain why next week. This week I will give you a little bit of background about what I understand about pilgrimage.

The dictionary describes pilgrimage as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.

The Beginning of Pilgrimage

The Bible is littered with stories of long journeys to sacred places or that have a deeper spiritual meaning.

  • The story of Abraham journeying in the promise of new lands and numerous descendants.
  • The story of the Exodus and the Israelite nation walking through the wilderness for 40 years in penance for their lack of faith. On this journey they are strangers in the land. They see hardship and God’s provision and this is often seen as reflection for our own Christian lives as we journey through life towards heaven.
  • Then when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem it became a requirement for all male Israelites to make the journey there for Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths. Many years later, we read about Jesus, at only 12 years old, making the 85 mile journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem (and another 85 miles back again) as an act of pilgrimage to celebrate the passover.
  • Jesus spent 40 days wandering in the wilderness, a time of solitude, a time to wrestle with the enemy and time to prepare for a new part of his life.
  • The journey that Jesus took, to Jerusalem and then to the cross and onto the Garden of Gethsemane is accompanied by incredible suffering and injustice but climaxes with salvation and new life.

After Pentecost, God no longer resided only in the Temple in Jerusalem. He was now available everywhere and the need for pilgrimage to a sacred place was no longer necessary. It was the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, who was used to pagan practices, who created a ‘Holy Land’ and a network of shrines and relics for Christians to visit and to touch. This has created controversy ever since because why would you need to travel to encounter God when he is everywhere.

Potted History Of Pilgrimage In The UK

Over the centuries, pilgrimage in the UK has gone in and out of fashion. From the early Anglo Saxons Christians believed that life was pilgrimage, a journey from birth to death. Many also practised pilgrimage to holy sites in the UK and overseas.

The reformation was a watershed time for pilgrimage. In the 1500’s It was declared that all pilgrimages should be stopped as they were not good, the Bible does not command us take part in a pilgrimage and they gave people an opportunity to sin! Many English shrines, statues and relics were destroyed or discredited. For protestants, journeying to a holy place stopped and instead, people focussed on an inner pilgrimage. This inner journey focussed on life as a pilgrimage and pilgrimage themes began to emerge in writings. John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress is a good example of this.

Journeys to Rome or Jerusalem continued but focussed far more on a cultural experience than a spiritual one.

Curiosity for travel increased in the 1800s fuelled by archeological discoveries in Egypt and Israel. This was less about pilgrimage and more about tourism. Then in 1869 Thomas Cook took his first tour to the Holy Land and began to popularise modern tourism. By the early 1900s, sacred sites in the UK were again attracting large numbers of visitors. Places like Iona, Canterbury and Walsingham among the most popular. Some cathedrals also revived the notion of issuing pilgrim badges to visiting pilgrims.

Today believers and non-believers alike journey to churches, cathedrals and other holy places for all manner of reasons. Pilgrims and tourists rub shoulders with each other to experience the atmosphere of holy places.


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