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“It is not the traveller who shapes the path, but the path that shapes the traveller.”
By I Can’t Remember.

We’ve talked about the Pilgrim Road itself and the festivals that inspired pilgrimage, but the pilgrimage itself had a great effect on the pilgrim.

Because the pilgrimage was undertaken over many days and sometimes across foreign lands or across desolate places, it was unwise to travel alone. The larger your party, the less likely you were to be targeted by thieves. If you forgot something, the more likely those with you could share without creating hardship. You could watch your children collectively, gather resources collectively, cook collectively, make camp collectively, break camp collectively, live and travel in community.

We see a great picture of this in Luke 2:41-50. Joseph and Mary are heading back to Nazareth after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem. So trusting are they in the community they are with that they walk a WHOLE DAY without seeing Jesus. We know Jesus had brothers and sisters; maybe they were capturing all of their parents’ attention that day. Maybe the pressure of having to parent a perfect child made them enjoy the interlude of not having a persistently correct 12-year-old around. Whatever the reason, they trusted their community this much and assumed he was with one of the families. Upon realizing their error, they immediately went and got him. But if this had happened today, Child Protective Services would have been called. (By the way, have you ever been guilty of bone-head parenting? Well Jesus’ parents did it too, and He turned out alright, so give yourself a break.)

So were there disadvantages to living in this kind of community? Why, yes. If you like privacy, well, that’s out the window. If you’re one of those people who never wants anyone to know you have problems, too bad. If you want people to think you make more than you do or that your kids never back-talk you or that you eliminate without odor, then you’re going to be uncomfortable. On the Pilgrim Road, all your quirks and idiosyncrasies are out in the open. Oh, your sins get a pretty fair viewing also. If you’ve ever been on a camping trip with friends or family, you know the truth of this.

Of course, they had to stick together no matter what, so what you wound up with was a bunch of people who accepted you, even when they had seen you at your worst and because of that, you were motivated to be better. To be better to the community and in the community that had accepted you as you were. You know that neighbor you were in that terrible fight with? You probably don’t want to spend days on the road wondering when that is going to blow up on you. Better make up. Not enough motivation to be a better citizen of the community? Well, you’re going to make sacrifices at THE TEMPLE where the presence of God has been rumored to refuse sacrifices offered from a bad heart. Sometimes when that happens, well, it’s unpleasant. Better go make up.

On The Pilgrim Road, I find myself encouraged to forgive others because they will probably have to forgive me for something. On The Pilgrim Road, I find patience for others because they had to have patience with me. On The Pilgrim Road, I see the greatness of God in the way He makes up for my weaknesses by providing others who are strong, and I get to see moments where my strengths make up for weaknesses in others. On The Pilgrim Road, I find community, love and family. On The Pilgrim Road, I see God’s body moving and working and growing together. No matter how hard the journey may seem, my best life is lived on The Pilgrim Road. And in Christ, I don’t have to travel anywhere to enjoy all that The Pilgrim Road has to offer. I’m always on the road to deeper relationship with Him.

Whenever you hear the phrase, “the pilgrim road,” used in antiquity, it was usually referring to a particular road or path to a holy place. This is somewhat true with Jewish pilgrimages to the temple in Israel. If you were coming from lands North or East of Israel, you wound up coming through Galilee. From Galilee, there were two paths to Jerusalem and they were the closest things to a pilgrim road for the Jewish believer.

One path went through Samaria and that was the most direct path, but traveling in Samaria had its drawbacks that we’ll talk about later. The other road went through Perea and was much longer, but you were among Jews most of the way.

Because the trip was long and could go through some unfriendly places, travelling was generally done in groups – the larger, the better. As they travelled, they would encounter other groups of pilgrims and merge into even larger, safer groups. That’s one of the huge advantages of having designated paths of pilgrimage. The closer you get to your destination, the more likely you are to encounter help and friendship.

Eventually, the pilgrim reaches his goal, which is a holy place. In the case of our Jewish friends, it is the Holy City and the Temple. But the place is not the actual goal. Getting right with God is the goal. Knowing you’ve fulfilled your obligations to your faith and to your fellow believers, knowing you are as right before God as you can be, that is the goal. It is a worthy goal. A goal for which pilgrims still travel today.

Of course, in Jesus, the whole thing gets turned around. Jesus says He is The Way, The Gate, The Narrow Path. In other words, Jesus is THE Pilgrim Road for us who believe. And once we have Jesus — or better, He has us — then we already have everything. I become as righteous as I can ever be because I gain His righteousness. I become as close to God as I can be. I’m one with Him. The obligations set forth by my sin are fulfilled by His sacrifice for me which is awesome because I could walk back and forth to the Temple a billion times and not begin to cover the distance sin had created between us. Now, I am the Temple; for His Holy Spirit resides in me.

So, when we believe in Him, we are automatically on the the pilgrim road. Our goal is no longer the destination. It is the road itself. It is getting to know The Way, The Truth and The Life. It becomes about understanding the bends and bumps and ups and downs, and how many of those came from me taking shortcuts. And of course, the closer you get to the Road, the more likely you are to encounter help and friendship; but also, the more likely you are to BE help and friendship. For us, the Road is not taking us to a physical destination, but rather we are moving to a place where we become indistinguishable from The Road Himself.
Pilgrims of this world start towards a destination in the hopes of redemption. The Christian pilgrim starts with the destination — with redemption — and then travels until all the things that are not Jesus have fallen away.

– Keith Troop

So we learned that the Psalms of Ascent were most likely psalms that were sung by pilgrims on the Pilgrim Road to Jerusalem. We’ll learn more about the Pilgrim Road in another one of whatever these are, a little later on.

Right now, we’ll answer a simpler question: Why were they making the pilgrimage?

Because God told them to.

Okay, seriously though, there were three times a year when the Nation of Israel was commanded to go up to the temple and make sacrifice. The Shalosh Regalim (pilgrimage festivals) were: Pessah (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks or Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Passover is the most famous because it celebrates that dramatic moment that is the breaking point for Pharaoh and the beginning of Israel as a nation. It is also the festival during which Jesus is crucified and during which Jesus gets left at the temple when He is twelve. It also celebrates the barley harvest.

Weeks or Pentecost is a festival that is specifically pointed to the wheat harvest, but it is also when we celebrate God giving The Torah to Moses. This would be a prime example of wanting to celebrate a thing, but not having a specific season of remembrance for that thing, so you pick something based on what is best for everyone. Like Christians did with Christmas.

Tabernacles celebrates the wandering in the wilderness when all the people were entirely dependent on God for every meal they ate. They were living in the presence of The Lord every day and they were without a land of their own. This festival is celebrated at the end of the annual harvest and is similar to fall festivals in other cultures. Think Thanksgiving, but without turkey, ham or football.

Now, in order to understand the importance of these festivals, you have to understand that before the Passover event, the Jews were a genetically linked people group, but they were not a nation. During their slavery in Egypt, they had grown into a vast people, but they didn’t really share any traditions or beliefs as such. This is pretty evident in all the trouble they have once they are out on their own. These festivals celebrate the three most significant events in the history of Israel. It is these things that turned many people into one nation. Without these three things, the whole world would look considerably different now. So God commands Israel to honor these three events. Because God is gracious and wise, He times the events to significant moments in the harvest so offerings can be brought when they have the least possible detriment to the people, and also so that each event is tied to something reminding the people of the abundant goodness of God.

When all the people essentially lived next to the Temple as it travelled in tent form through the desert with them, then they were expected to go to the celebrations. You don’t come late or leave early. We’re meeting by the big tent marked by the pillar of fire, so don’t try saying you got lost or didn’t know about it. As the people spread out a bit when settling in Israel and then a bit more as they were taken captive to lands that were a super inconvenient long way away, the requirement eased up a bit. It became more of a goal to get to Jerusalem once a year, for one of the festivals.

Luke 2:41-52 tells us that Jesus’ parents were faithful-once-a-year folks and their chosen festival was Passover. It doesn’t say they didn’t go to every festival, every year; it’s just this is the only one mentioned, and traveling from Galilee on foot was a bit of an event.

Nowadays, it’s more of a once-in-a-lifetime thing as it is quite a walk from New York. But the spirit of the pilgrimage is embodied in some of the traditions of the Jewish people, such as when concluding the Passover Seder, the group looks at each other and say, “next year in Jerusalem.”

Football is catching on in Israel, but there is still no ham.