The concept of pilgrimage within the Christian faith is very unusual. For some, the idea of going on a Pilgrimage to some site or place of historical significance is a deeply spiritual activity, and one that they believe can have a profound effect on their lives. Yet for other Christians the act of Pilgrimage remains something of a puzzle, a real non event in their lives.
How can this be? How can for so many of the Christian faith, the act of Pilgrimage is so important and for others it means nothing to them at all. Let us look to the roots of Christianity for an indication of the answer.
Together with Islam and the Jewish tradition Christianity belongs to the three religions that all believe that there is only one God, (Monotheism is the common label for these three religions). For those who follow Islam, Pilgrimage is even today very important, and the ideal for any Muslim is to make a Pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in the lifetime. For the Jewish people the remains of the ancient temple in Jerusalem is a very important place.
Christianity is firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition. When we read the Old Testament we are reading about the Jewish people and their relationship with God and the other nations of the ancient near east. One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people is that they had their temple, in Jerusalem, where they believed that God dwelt. The Jewish people of the Old Testament had a focal point for their spiritual life. They had an epicenter around which their lives swung in orbit.
Indeed the Old Testament is explicitly clear that the temple was the dwelling place of God on earth. It can also be seen that by the time of Jesus (the New Testament) that there had arisen a tradition of traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This pilgrimage had its significance because of the real presence of God that was perceived to be living and active in their temple at Jerusalem.
One of the greatest examples of imagery used in the biblical cannon is in that moment when the son of God passed away on the cross, and in that moment the curtain in the temple was torn. The curtain was the dividing line between man and God, it was the point beyond which virtually no one was ever able to cross and live. The beauty of the imagery lies in the destruction of that boundary. No longer is there a singular place on earth where God exists. At that moment on the cross, the rules for our relationship with God were forever altered.
God made the temple holy. But God is no longer in the temple, or in any other building in that way. The New Testament tells us that 'your body is a temple of the holy spirit' and not any traditional building.
Buildings are not holy. God is holy. Areas of land are not holy. God is holy. There is nothing holy about any building in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter. The building or the place was never the point. The point of the Pilgrimage was always God. Nothing else. But the Bible is clear that God does not dwell in any place on earth like that any more.
The increasingly popular trends that we see, particularly in Israel for Pilgrimages to the 'holy land' is nothing short of a Christian abomination. It is not going too far to say that Pilgrimages are an affront to God because in taking yourself on a Pilgrimage you are aligning yourself with either one of two heretical positions. In taking part in a Pilgrimage you are either stating that God is particularly present in one particular geographical location on earth, and in so doing you are denying the full work of the cross – remember the beautiful imagery of the curtain being torn? You are saying that God is not everywhere, but somewhere, and you need to go to that somewhere in order to be more holy.
The alternative position that you are aligning yourself with is that you agree that God no longer dwells in buildings or places, yet you still view the destination of the Pilgrimage as being holy in which case you are conceding that something other than God can make something holy.
Either of the positions noted above can only really be described as heresy.
Pilgrimages are attempts by people to somehow try and make themselves more holy than they are. They are based in a good place – humility. The only genuine reason someone would embark on a Pilgrimage is because they would view themselves as lacking holiness in some way. This humility is a good thing, but the solution to this lack is where we see the erroneous beliefs coming in. We see the idea that God is not here, but rather God is over there, and if I go over there to be nearer God then I will become more holy because of my proximity to God. There is, at least, some kind of logic to the thinking. But logical as it may sound, it is entirely heretical.
As a Christian, we already have access to God through the finished work of the cross. We have no need for to travel anywhere in order to be near to God, as the blood shed on the cross brought us as near as we could ever hope to be to the living God.
Of course there is nothing wrong with going to see places of historic interest and religious significance. It can be an enriching experience during which time of breathing the same air as the apostles and feeling the same sand between your toes can give you a new appreciation for the gospel message, and this can be a spiritual experience and can be life changing. But the concept of the Pilgrimage, of the traveling in order to encounter God and to be made holy as a result of that encounter is something which is in direct opposition to the teachings of scripture.
There is nothing that can make you holy anywhere except God, and God does not dwell in buildings or cities or fields or houses. As a follower of Jesus, the spirit of God already dwells within you, how much closer do you really need to be to God than that? You need not take yourself anywhere if your intention is to move closer to God.
So if you do want to travel then you don't have to do it as a traditional Pilgrimage, but maybe you want to travel to celebrate some of the Christian Holidays together with your family, in particular Easter and Christmas. Or maybe the big family gathering in your family is Thanksgiving which was invented by the Pilgrims.