The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga
This Advent, I am inviting us as a congregation to go on a pilgrimage. Not an exterior, physical pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage-in-place in the ancient mystic tradition. This is a spiritual pilgrimage, as we re-embody our exterior lives after pandemic restrictions, toward the embodiment of God in this world. God took on a body as the Christ child that first Christmas, and God continues to call us to embody Christ– to be his presence, his hands and feet in the world. A season of focussing on God’s presence in our lives and the world around us can give deeper roots and wider branches to that calling.
Advent is my favorite season of the Church year because it so sharply contrasts with what the world is doing during the “holiday season.” The world pulls us outward into activities: shopping, festivities, decoration, cooking. This season of merriment is wonderful in many ways, but leaves a lot out– the ill, those who are grieving, and the economically poor, to name a few. Advent, in contrast, invites us deeply inward. With its blue-purple color, hymns in minor keys, and scriptures about radical hope, Advent is the door to deeper, truer joy born at Christmas: a joy for everyone; a joy that nothing can ever take away.
Pilgrimage, which reached its zenith in the west during the middle ages, was also for everyone. Rich and poor, noble or peasant, most everyone aspired to take a transformational journey to a sacred shrine in search of healing, forgiveness, or just the excitement of adventure on probably the only significant journey of their lives. However, medieval thinkers understood pilgrimage as more than just a physical journey. Writing about the pilgrimage motif in medieval literature, Dr. Dee Dyas of the University of York speaks of three overlapping understandings of pilgrimage: “an image of the Christian journey through life, an actual, physical journey to a sacred location, and an internal, spiritual experience.” Dee Dyas, University of York, Website on Pilgrimage
If all our spiritual life can be thought of as a pilgrimage from which we don’t return– a one way trip to permanent encounter with God– how do the little pilgrimages we make along the way correspond with that? I believe the intentional pilgrimages we make in our lives, whether external journeys or internal, serve to heighten our awareness of the presence of the divine in each moment of our everyday lives. Physical journeys make us aware of the transitory and relative nature of our own small worlds, which otherwise can seem permanent and all-encompassing. Spiritual times set apart refresh us and open our spirits to joy and wonder.
Practically speaking, how can you make a pilgrimage without taking a trip? Each time we enter into a time of prayer, walk the labyrinth, participate in corporate worship, attend a small group meeting or study, we enter into a pilgrimage space– a time set apart with intention for an encounter with the holy. But beyond these ostensibly sacred times, pilgrimage continues to beckon. We can make a simple walk into a pilgrimage. A sabbath or a day off can be an intentional time set apart for encounter and renewal; indeed, such time is necessary if we are to engage the third step of pilgrimage, meaning-making, by which we incorporate the pilgrimage reality more deeply into our souls and lives. If we are taking a trip (as many do during Advent and Christmas!), with intention, we can make any journey into a pilgrimage. This is the central point of Phil Cousineau’s book The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seekers’ Guide to Making Travel Sacred, which I quote throughout this devotional.
The Church has two great “pilgrimage” seasons, times of intentional preparation which fit well with the metaphor of spiritual journey: Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, and Lent, the forty days before Easter. In these seasons we have the opportunity to journey together toward not a sacred place but a sacred moment in liturgical time– the celebration of Christ’s birth and of the resurrection. The Incarnation– the in-breaking of God into human time and space as a helpless, poor newborn–is perhaps the more surprising of these two great mysteries, and certainly the one that makes all the others possible. By joining us in our physical plane as “God with skin on,” Jesus the Christ infused all physical life with the presence of God: we are doubly blessed: to have the image of God breathed into our spirits, and to be in human bodies in which the eternal Word of God was pleased to dwell. Through the incarnation, literally the “enfleshment” of God, all creation bears the presence of God, making encounter with the divine possible anywhere.
The pandemic caused physical separation that interrupted our incarnate lives– in every way from grocery shopping to receiving communion. Now that most pre-pandemic physical encounters are again possible, does incarnate engagement mean anything new? This Advent season, as we begin a new Church year, we have an opportunity to journey toward a deeper experience of this physical world as a place to meet God.
The invitation this Advent is to set out on a spiritual pilgrimage. To take up the pilgrim’s intention of seeing with new eyes, of encountering God hiding in plain sight– in the sacred moments of our everyday lives, in light, in beauty, in touch, and in love. The promise to those who seek is that we will find. (Matthew 7:7) Opening our eyes and our hearts this Advent season to the reality of God all around us and in us, in our spirits and in this physical world, will lead to encounter with the holy. It might not look as we imagined (most authentic encounter with the divine is surprising!), but it will come. As we take the time to “ponder these things in our hearts,” as Mary did, their significance sinks ever more deeply into our souls. There, God does the work of transformation.
This Advent devotional offers thoughts, stories, questions, prayers and practices for each week of Advent, following this four-fold path of pilgrimage: intention, encounter, meaning-making, and transformation. Sermons at Grace for the four Sundays of Advent in 2022 will explore these same themes. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to his people: “O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:5)