Travel makes us desperate for home, a place of sanctuary and wholeness.
Being home reminds us, we have miles to go before we are forever home.
The apocalyptic vision of the New Testament dislocates us from temporal hopes and transforms us into people who wander toward a greater vision. As such, our lives are full of displacement, expulsion, and separation. Yet we are not alone as pilgrims, sojourners, aliens, and strangers, as these figure prominently in both the Old and New Testaments. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Paul sojourned into foreign places and among strangers. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as suffering outside the gate and suggests that we should “go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb 13:12-13). Peter names the believers “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” as those who reside as aliens (1 Pt 1:2). As followers of Christ, we are meant to wander as he did.
Even if pilgrimage is not our actual, physical state, we are to exist as pilgrim people. Though we stay within our country of birth, on a familiar street and in our ancestral home, pilgrimage is our calling and commitment in life. Pilgrimage is the recognition that our true citizenship is in another kingdom, the kingdom of God. It is our admission that the present is transitory and unstable, and our hope must be in another place of home. Thus, Christendom is not our home. Whether as a territorial or political reality or a Christian nation, or some other kind of realized sacred space, we refuse to homestead it as our ultimate place of arrival. We are pilgrims, passing through an alien country, a foreign land – never truly at home. We are moving, always moving, toward another place.
Jolts of physical and sexual abuse, broken relationships, devastating wars, economic woes, and personal loss have destroyed the illusion of sanctuary and wholeness in the here and now. Our Christendom assumptions of place and privilege have all but disappeared. Only faint whispers of God and country, denominational prowess, and naive optimism remain. The Christian religion is no longer culturally privileged and politically connected, and therefore our only choice is to sojourn as aliens and pilgrims. To think otherwise is an empty dream or nostalgic delusion.
The current counter narrative to pilgrimage is the gospel of health and wealth. While territorial and political Christendom may have disappeared, there still exist enclaves of cultural Christendom in which Christians maintain a vision of a kingdom on earth in which they are entitled to the best life possible. Within these ghettos, religious personalities and superstars function as exemplars of success. Their not so subtle message is – ‘If you follow Christ, you can have it all, right now. Like me, you can live large, be known, and have the benefits of all kingdoms.’ Yet, their narrative of success and grandeur, human ingenuity and power contradicts the biblical account of Jesus sending out the seventy with no provision and as lambs among wolves. It is contrary to Jesus’ words of the kingdom of God as being small and hidden. It is in conflict with the lived experience of the early church and the abject conditions of believers who live in the two-thirds world.
Part of our present confusion is that pilgrims are regularly canonized and celebrated as saints. Contemporary notions of pilgrim convey images that are rather respectable and tame. However, the raw language of Scripture paints pilgrim in a different hue. A pilgrim is a homeless wanderer exposed to the elements who must rely upon others for basis needs. The picture that comes to my mind is of people sleeping on the streets of Kolkata, India, exposed to rain, heat and mosquitoes, in borrowed spaces and at risk of foul play and abuse. They have little to no assurance of medical care, food, or security. Asleep at the curb and in alleyways, these people look more like heaps of trash than human beings. They are without homes, begging for their existence, and outside the structures of power and privilege. Guards are stationed at the entrances of Kolkata’s respectable bookstores, clothing stores, and restaurants (even McDonalds) to ensure that these undesirables do not bother normal, privileged people – like me. Privilege and power, money and means fool me into thinking that God preferences me over those sleeping on the street and that I have no need.
My need is not to be without food or shelter but to be a pilgrim. Poverty and homelessness are not virtues in themselves except as they make me dependent and dislocate me from my sense of privilege. People I consider to be pilgrims live in homes, drive cars, go to work, and pay monthly mortgages. To have food, shelter and security does not disqualify one from becoming a pilgrim but certainly makes being on pilgrimage more of a challenge. Whether in a home or on the street, with ample food or in great hunger, American or Indian, the ultimate aim of the pilgrim is to be defined by Christ and his way. My pride of possession, place of birth, language, ample means, and religious ways keep me from seeing myself as I actually am – a desperate exile longing for home.
Two final statements are needed, less I misrepresent pilgrimage. First, being a pilgrim does not mean we become world-deniers or are of no earthly good. It is when we become free of loyalties and detraction that we are truly free to love others and work for their freedom. Second, we do not arrive as pilgrims. Because our tendency is to make pilgrimage a reason for pride or a place of arrival, we must hold it as an ideal to which we never attain but are always moving toward.
You and I are called to journey in hope toward a home in which true sanctuary and wholeness will one day be realized for ourselves and others. Until that day, we see Christ outside the gate and move toward him as our forever home.