This is a good day to start a pilgrimage. It is the second day of Advent, the season that begins the Christian year. An “advent” is the coming of something expected. God is coming in the person of Jesus to be God with us. God’s coming as a baby invites us to begin again, ourselves, and go through our own process of maturation until we move though death into resurrection life with Him.
I take all my vacations as a pilgrimage. If I have my head on straight, I take a trip to Rite-Aid as a pilgrimage. My definition of a pilgrimage includes welcoming the unexpected, even the unwanted as part of my journey with Jesus. A pilgrimage allows me to see God at work in all sorts of new situations that tests my capacity to trust him. I discover, again and again, that beyond my ordinary awareness God is present and leading. So I don’t take vacations anymore; I’d rather inhabit what is happening than vacate. That’s more like God becoming Emmanuel, I think.
Last week many Americans (especially if they were in elementary school) remembered the persecuted separatists from the English Church, called THE Pilgrims, who created a place for themselves in Massachusetts. The kids learned that a pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey, often with a religious or moral purpose, often a journey to a place that is foreign to them. The Pilgrims who had the famous thanksgiving feast thought of themselves as those kind of pilgrims. Here’s some evidence: After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born to the Pilgrims who sailed on it was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White!) named him Peregrine – a word which applies to a person travelling from far away and also means “pilgrim.” When Governor William Bradford wrote about the group’s departure for America he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.”
Everybody in the story of Christ’s coming is something of a pilgrim. The wise men come all the way from Persia looking for what their studies revealed. John the Baptist goes into the wilderness and then out to the Jordan River where people journey to meet him and repent. Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem and then to Egypt and back. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the Savior and then go all over the countryside to tell everyone about him. Where are you going? God has come from heaven and Jesus is taking first steps as a human and leading through death into life. Are you a similar pilgrim?
Advent is a season for beginning the journey. Some people reading this are just getting to know Jesus and every step is fresh and maybe unnerving. More people reading this are challenged to begin again, to not stay put, to not let the notables in the well-known “Christmas” story just pass them by.
How do we get started? We have a few weeks to figure that out. I think each of the main players in the story offers a very good example of what to do:
1) Go somewhere.
This whole season will be filled with places to go that are not really spiritual places at all — take Best Buy, for instance — perhaps your office “winter holiday” party. Plan at least one event in your season that is like being a wise man searching for the Savior. Take half a day off and call it “searching for the Savior time.” Walk by the river. Sit in the cathedral. Follow the star like the wise men.
2) Experience wilderness.
The whole season is exquisitely designed, these days, to be absolutely fake. We even disguise trees and put them in our living rooms! But you don’t really need to travel very far from Philly before you can see actual stars. Or just sit down in the park or on your step, and experience the weather. Listen to God in creation like John the Baptist.
3) Fulfill an obligation.
It is true that the obligation to observe Christmas can be oppressive. The “holiday spirit” is so omnipresent that nonbelievers have to get involved! Even Jesus followers end up resenting it and sulk through the season. But taking on the discipline of the spiritual pilgrimage of Advent can be liberating. It does not require tinsel, cooking or forced feelings of warmth. It does, however, require intention, honor, and determination — like Joseph listening to God and marrying his already-pregnant betrothed, then fleeing with his new family to Egypt. Every act of compassion is like becoming a refugee from your comfort zone. Going to a party to give light instead of looking for feelings you don’t have might be better for you. Listening to God and acting out the best response you can think of would be a good use of the season.
There is no doubt that this season is filled with escapism that needs to be escaped. How many babies will you see decorated like the one in the picture? Maybe you should deliberately skip doing something that you would not do unless it was expected of you — like making those cookies or going to that thing in New York. The REAL baby Jesus and that baby in you might need some extra protection, some kind of symbolic act that demonstrates they are important. Run for your life like Mary clutching her baby on the way to Egypt.
5) Go tell your story.
Maybe you have no freedom to make a lot of choices or have little money to spend on interesting ways to be a pilgrim. Don’t fret. You can be on a “speaking tour” as you move through your day. Your latest experience with Jesus is worth telling. Move around your own countryside telling about the Savior that is born to everyone, Christ the Lord, just like the shepherds did. It might help to remember that they did not have an idea in their heads about how this was supposed to be done, they just did it like they were themselves, not who they were supposed to be.
Just keep moving. Advent is a pilgrimage. Your inward journey will be greatly benefited if you have outward movement that helps it. If you can manage to not get pushed around by the wacky holiday thing the world does (or manage to not merely resist that wacky thing), maybe you can experience what the people in the true story are experiencing.