Pilgrims and Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage in the Bible

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The theme of pilgrimage is woven into many of the books which make up the Christian Bible. It is a multi-faceted concept which includes ideas of journey, experiencing exile, living as a pilgrim or sojourner, and the quest for a homeland.

The Old Testament

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

The Book of Genesis, part of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, tells a story central to Christian ideas of pilgrimage: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they disobey God by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3). The Fall of Adam and Eve is shown to have profound implications. They and their descendents are condemned to live as exiles in a harsh and inhospitable world, alienated both from God and from one another by sin. Adam and Eve's eldest son Cain later murders his brother Abel in a fit of jealous anger because Abel's offering to God has been judged more acceptable than his own (Genesis 4:1-16). As punishment, God sends Cain into further exile, away from his home and family.

The Old Testament presents several physical journeys which also have a deeper spiritual meaning. The journey made by Abraham and the story of the Exodus from Egypt both emphasise the theme of God journeying with his people and stress the importance of being willing to obey and trust God. Abraham, a key figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is shown in Genesis 12:1-9 leaving his home to go in search of a land which God promises to show him, becoming a 'pilgrim' or 'sojourner' whose willingness to obey God makes him a model of faith and obedience. In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites travel through the wilderness to the land of Canaan, experiencing both hardships and God's care and guidance. The Exodus motif plays a key role in Christian thought and the long journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land was later interpreted as a paradigm or model of the Christian journey through a fallen world towards heaven.

In time, the city of Jerusalem developed into a centre of pilgrimage, a place where God could be encountered in a special way. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the three feasts of Passover, Weeks and Booths became a requirement for all male Israelites who would often have been joined by other family members. During periods of exile, pilgrimage to Jerusalem took on additional emotional and spiritual significance.

The New Testament

The Last Judgement

The New Testament picks up many motifs from the Old Testament but also shows some important changes in emphasis. The Fall of Humankind, and the stories of alienation, disobedience and conflict which follow, provide the backdrop to the drama of redemption told in the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is shown winning forgiveness for humankind through his death on the Cross, making it possible for individuals to return to God and eventually reach heaven, vividly portrayed in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 21:9-22:5). The focus shifts from seeking God in the earthly city of Jerusalem to finding him in Jesus Christ, believed to be God made man.

New Testament writers stress that salvation will be offered for a limited time only before Jesus Christ returns to judge humankind (Matthew 25:31-33). This event, often called the Last Judgement, will be unexpected (Matthew 24:36-44) and cataclysmic (2 Peter 3:10-13), as the created world dissolves and is remade. Human beings therefore need to be aware of the essential transience of this world and its pleasures (John 2:17; 1 Corinthians 7:31; James 1:11) and prepare themselves to face God's verdict on the way they have lived. Christians are therefore encouraged to see themselves as 'pilgrims and strangers on the earth', 'temporary residents' whose true home is in heaven (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13). The Christian life itself is thus seen as a journey towards that homeland in which the individual believer seeks to follow and obey Christ through an alien, frequently hostile world (John 14:6; Mark 8:34). Figures such as Abraham are presented as examples of faith to be imitated (Hebrews 11:1-16).

Later commentators developed a complex web of connections and allegorical interpretation as Old Testament characters and events were given new significance within the teaching of the New Testament.

Dee Dyas
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