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Advent as Pilgrimage

Nov. 30, 2008
The Rev. Susan J. Latimer

touristsThere is a difference between a tourist and someone who is on a pilgrimage. Tourists take pictures, buy souvenirs, send postcards to their friends back at home, and often try to pack as much sight-seeing into one trip as is humanly possible. Tourists go places for fun and excitement and relaxation. They do not usually set out to have their lives changed.

Someone who is on a pilgrimage has a different intention from the start.

People on pilgrimage set out on a journey to find God.

pilgrimageThey do not plan every moment of the journey. They intentionally leave time and space open so that they may have time to reflect, and notice God at work in their lives. People on pilgrimage know that their lives will be changed, whether their pilgrimage takes them far from home or is done in their own backyard. Here at St. John’s some of our youth are in the beginning stages of preparing for a pilgrimage. In the summer of 2010, our J2A group will go on a pilgrimage to a sacred site of their choosing, to mark the end of their two years in the Journey to Adulthood Program.

In Advent the Church calls us all to a great pilgrimage.

Today is the first day of Advent. Advent is from the Latin – Adventus – which means “coming”. In Advent we prepare for the coming of Christ.

We are called to be pilgrims rather than tourists, through this season of anticipation of Christ’s coming.

Tourists almost always use maps when they are in unfamiliar territory. There are not always maps available for the spiritual journey of a pilgrim.

triptikMost of us would like some kind of a road map – a personalized itinerary of our life’s journey. We’d know what to expect, then. Even better would be the kind of map that Triple A puts together for you for a long trip – one of those triptiks ( tryptichs! ) that charts every road and rotary and major intersection between you and your destination.

We had a Triple A Triptich when we moved from Atlanta to Maine in 2001 – with a car, a van, a big dog, and our two little boys. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without one. Last summer when we moved from Maine to West Virginia – this time with a car, a van, two big dogs, and two bigger boys - another AAA triptych. The great thing about those triptychs is that every time we turned a page, we knew we were that much closer to West Virginia. We knew where we were going and we knew where we were – at least most of the time!

Most of us want a map for our spiritual life because with a map we think we could be prepared for the delays, the detours, the speeding tickets, the flat tires, the highway accidents of life.

But we get no triptych for our spiritual journey. At best, we have the guidance of others who have struggled with similar bumps in the road.

We don’t always even get the road signs along the way that can be so helpful.

road signsToll Ahead.
Single Lane Bridge
No Services next 100 miles
7 % grade – test your brakes
Road Work – next 82 miles – prepare for delays.

The season of Advent does give us some road signs.

“Beware, keep alert” – says Jesus in Marks’ Gospel
“Keep awake”

How do we interpret these signs that were written for us so long ago?
How can these signs help us in our Advent pilgrimage?

First of all, these are not directional signs.
These signs do not tell us where to go, or exactly what is ahead for us.
They are signs that tell us how to be.
We are to be awake – we are to be aware – we are to be ready.

St. JohnBeing awake, aware, and ready during Advent has a lot to do with being more like pilgrims than tourists.

Pilgrims try to live in the moment – they try to be fully present to themselves and those around them, instead of being constantly distracted by the past or the future.
Pilgrims find meaning and purpose in the simple things of life
sharing a meal with family and friends
enjoying the wonder of God’s creation
spending time with an elderly person, or a toddler, or a teenager

Pilgrims are always looking for signs of God’s presence in the world around them. Pilgrims risk being changed by their experiences.
A pilgrim will risk stepping out into the unknown in order to find God.

St. John of the Cross, one of the Church’s most trusted guides for our spiritual journey, tells us:

To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way you know not.
(Entering on the road means leaving ones’ own road, or better, moving on to the goal.)
And turning from one’s own mode implies entry into that which has no mode: that is, God.

What would it mean for you to take a risk this Advent? What would it mean for you to “go by a way you know not”?

  • Spending time with people that you are uncomfortable around?
  • Giving more away to those in need?
  • Spending time in silence and prayer each day?
  • Working on a difficult relationship – perhaps with someone in your work or family that you find especially difficult to be around?

“Beware, keep alert”
“Keep awake”
“Be ready”

These signs can help us navigate our Advent journey.
And we do not journey alone.

The early Hebrew people spoke of the “walking God”.
God was in the ark, which could travel with them.
God was in the tent of meeting – where Moses could come and go and commune with God.
God appeared as a pillar of fire to lead them on their way.

jesusThe first Christians walked with Jesus along the dusty roads, and later found that Jesus was still with them on their pilgrimage.
Our God is a God who comes to us – as a pillar of fire,
As a baby in a manger, as a triumphant ruler at the end of time as we know it.
Our God is a God who walks with us on our pilgrimage.

We journey toward God, only to find that God is already walking beside us.

And, in retrospect, we do get our triptychs. We get them in reverse. They do not come to us ahead of time, but we can create them, with God’s grace. After the span of a year, or many years, as we look back at how God has been active in our lives, we can draw our own pilgrimage map.

Yes, God was there when my father died, in the love of friends, the amazing synchronicities, the powerful dreams.
Yes, God was there when I was divorced – in the supportive community, the humbling of self, and the new life that finally broke through the grief.

Yes, God was there – in every important point in my life, helping to direct, and support, and challenge, and nurture me. I couldn’t always see it or feel it at the time, but, looking back, the way is very clear.

This Advent, the Church invites you to accept the call to pilgrimage. Don’t go through this season like a tourist, who comes and goes and does not wish to be changed. Take the risk of pilgrimage – and God will show you the next step – the very next step on your journey – which is all we ever really need to know, anyway.

Amen.