Recently, I attended a webinar that featured travel writer and television personality, Rick Steves. Hosted by the General Board of Higher Education of the United Methodist Church, the beauty of this experience was how Steves talked about how travel is a spiritual act for him. Even more poignant was the way he talked about stumbling into this work early on and how it became a love and deep calling.
The connection between faith or spirituality and travel led me to think about the contemplative notion of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage as a spiritual act cuts across religious traditions. The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the five pillars of Islam. In the Hindu tradition, pilgrimage is encouraged in a number of ways, including The Kanwar Pilgrimage where millions of pilgrims gather water from the Ganges and carry it across hundreds of miles to dispense as offerings in Shiva shrines.
This coming week, Christians around the world will set out on an annual pilgrimage. Holy Week invites us on a journey with Jesus at the end of his life. It is a week full of deep emotion, as the end of life often is.
Holy Week is the last week of the season of Lent and immediately precedes Easter, one of the most recognizable holidays in the Christian calendar. It is the culmination of our wandering through the 40 days of Lent, a time of repentance, reflection, and renewal. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the days of this week celebrated by most Christians.
The week commences with Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. In that same city at Golgotha, Jesus is killed just days later. On Palm Sunday, though, he was welcomed into that city by excited crowds who waved palm branches shouting, “Hosanna.”
On Maundy or Holy Thursday, we begin to ease into the very last days of Jesus’ life. This day commemorates the stories of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means commandment. It reflects Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment.” The commandment is to love one another.
Good Friday is the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, a form of capital punishment in those ancient days. The stories of this final chapter of Jesus’ life are rich with description, conflict, betrayal, denial and pain. They are often traumatic. The altar in many liturgical churches is bare on Good Friday, because members strip it of its contents the evening before at the Maundy Thursday worship service. The cross is covered and draped in black. It is a day of desolation when we dig into the depths and pain of death, grief and loss.
The final day of Holy Week is Holy Saturday. Though not observed in my own Protestant background, I have come to appreciate it deeply. Jesus, the Christ, is resting in the tomb. The final verses of the traditional Good Friday reading in the gospel of John 19:38-42 illuminate this day for me. Two people we know very little about, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prepare Jesus’ body for a proper burial. Joseph risks his own honor and asks the leader, Pilate, for the body.
Both of these men, Scripture tells us, had long expected the coming kingdom of God. I imagine that they were devastated at learning of the death of Jesus, and yet they claimed his body and prepared it with spices for a proper burial. In the final act of love for him, they seemingly took a deep breath and then got him ready for the tomb. This was an act of love and rebellion as they risked their own honor by claiming the body of an executed criminal. This gift of love embodies the new commandment Jesus gave to them.
Pilgrimage is a journey, and Holy Week is just that. It is a journey where we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, our faith or spirituality, and each other. It is also an act of love and rebellion as we see in the example of Joseph and Nicodemus. Like on a pilgrimage, it calls us to step beyond that which is comfortable to risk being vulnerable, to love, and to take care of each other and the earth.
Rev. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain in Oxford.