The Christian pilgrim
Reflections for the New Year
At the beginning of a new year that appears full of uncertainties, we may remind ourselves of the biblical metaphor of Christians as a people of pilgrims in the present world. The background for this picture is, of course, found in the Old Testament story of the Exodus when God saved his powerless people from their slavery in Egypt. Upon reaching the promised land, the Israelites recognised their salvation as a gift from above and reminded themselves in the temple of their pilgrim status: “a wandering Aramean was my Father” (Deut 26:5). Likewise, the pilgrim motif is evoked when St. Paul encourages the people of the New Covenant to put their trust in God and “also walk in steps of that faith which our father Abraham had” (Rom 4:12, cf. Gal 3:9).
Madonna di Loreto – Patroness of the Pilgrims
Caravaggio, Church of St. Augustine, Rome
This Christian self-understanding of being a people of pilgrims also appears in the Acts of the Apostles when the believers are called those “of the way” (9:2). However, this choice of words is more than merely the description of a state of mind that arises from a sense of being strangers in an alien world. Being “on the way” positively defines Christians as belonging to a separate community of faith, distinct from the Jews and the Greeks (21:28, 22:4, cf. 1 Cor 10;32). Thus the description connotes their understanding of themselves as the new people of God in the history of salvation. Generation after generation of Christians are walking in the light of Christ on their way towards the Heavenly Jerusalem, to quote the wording in the Book of Revelation (21:10ff).
The obvious challenge during this pilgrimage, St. Paul explains in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, is “that we walk by faith not by sight”. In order not to loose track under the way, writes the Apostle, we must make it our aim to be well-pleasing to the Lord who shall be our judge. All the difficulties on the road notwithstanding, the destination of our journey remains clear: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:5-10).
Whilst the Apostle clearly emphasises the responsibility of each individual, we will notice that St. Paul admonishes in the plural. The pilgrim might be a lonely wanderer needing to make a private spiritual journey in order to grow as a person. Still, the end of this journey is more than a descent into the self. From a Christian perspective, the true spiritual needs of man require regeneration by incorporation into the body of Christ.
For this end, the sacraments of the Church establish a new common life among men. Baptism entails a union of individuals through the love of Christ, as St. Paul instructs the Corinthians: “For by one Spirit we are all baptised into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Similarly, our participation in the Eucharist makes the unity in Christ visible: “The cup of the blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16f).
St. Paul preaching (Mosaic from Ravenna)
Consequently, the social bonds among the faithful are expressed also as a spiritual discipline. The mutual love and support found in the community of faith ensure that the members of the body of Christ do not lose heart in view of the afflictions (2 Cor 4:16ff). However, the pilgrim ethos also brings about a spiritual distance between the wanderers and “those who are outside” the fellowship (1 Cor 5:12). The wisdom of this world may seem attractive and reasonable to non-believers, but true wisdom, the wisdom of God, is only to be found in the Gospel of Christ, St. Paul warns the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:6f, 3:19).
At a time when Western culture is in danger of imploding and many Christians, as part of the confusion, seem to reduce their faith to a source of merely private uplifting, St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians provides us with the necessary point of reorientation. We are to experience, like all men, the good and the bad aspects of this fallen world. Nevertheless, although it is to our obvious advantage as pilgrims if there were peace and order around us, we must never forget that we are pilgrims underway to our heavenly destination; “if for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor 15:19).
Thus, Christians live in “two cities” at the same time, to use St. Augustine’s words (The City of God, XIX:26f). This double identity for lack of a better word, may be “foolishness to the world” but it gives us the wisdom to recognise the things which lead to our salvation. “God is faithful”, the Apostle admonishes the Corinthians, for it is God who establishes us in Christ and “he has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:18, 21f).
– Then we too are wandering Arameans putting our trust in God’s promises.