One item near the top of my very brief “bucket list” is to make a pilgrimage. My definition of pilgrimage is “an arduous journey to a shrine or holy place with a particular intention in mind, often in the company of fellow pilgrims.” The Canterbury Tales comes to mind, as does the compulsory annual journey to Mecca for Muslims, and we have all seen pictures of devout Buddhists in Tibet literally inchworming their way toward some holy site by prostrating themselves on the ground, rising to take a step, then lying down flat again, again and again.
But those pilgrimages best known to Christians and Jews are the annual religious celebrations mandated by the Old Testament: Pentecost, Passover, Tabernacles, and more. At these designated times, Jews from all over the empire were required to make the journey – long or short – from their home sites to converge at Mount Zion and the Temple to sacrifice, to praise and to pray. Acts 2:1-13 describes the event in Jesus’ time, and Isaiah the prophet catches the mood of high joy and expectation:
“And you shall sing as on the night you celebrate a holy festival; your hearts will rejoice as when peo-ple playing pipes go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Rock of Zion” (Isaiah 30:29).
This Psalm is the first of 15 subtitled “A Song of Ascents”; the Hebrew word being “ma’aloth”, meaning “goings up.” It is highly unlikely that I, an octogenarian plus two, will ever undertake such a strenuous trek, but in retrospect I see that indeed, I have made mini-pilgrimages at sundry times during my life when the joy and the excitement of travel and arrival were given in wonderful ways. And these experiences have changed my life dramatically.
One such mini-pilgrimage occurred in the spring of 1965 when I was serving as assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Bridgeport, CT. Urban renewal was the rage back then and our beautiful 112 year old building, which stood smack in the path of an artery of Route 95, was designated for destruction. During the grace period that followed, the church, having received more than ample compensation for the loss, built a state-of-the-art edifice in the town of Fairfield two miles up the road. Immediately following the final worship service, the congregation gathered out in front and formed a parade, complete with banners, balloons and a flatbed truck with a piano. When all was in readiness, we stood in a moment of reverential silence as the church bell was rung 112 times to mark the passing of the old. Then began the ascent – the two mile trek to the new building. On the way we stopped at the Hebrew synagogue and the Catholic church where we were welcomed to the neighborhood and presented with commemorative plaques. Upon arrival at the new church we regrouped and again stood in reverential attention as the bell was rung 113 times to mark our new beginning. That was our pilgrimage.
Not much of an ascent. Was it? But not all ascents are measurable in the ordinary way. Perhaps the best “Goings Up” are matters of the spirit. How you travel is one measurement. What happens to your soul along the way is another. You may make it to the Rock and the Temple (and more power to you!), but then turn around and head for home hardly different than when you started out – except for the blisters on your feet.
I hope our psalmist, whoever he was, found what he was looking for. As for me, I’m ready for one more.
- Randy Rice
Centerpoint Community Church, Salem & their pastor Bill Swilling
First Baptist Church, Sanbornton and their pastors Scott and Toni Manning
Second Baptist Church, Sanbornton and their pastor Chris McMicken