Pilgrimage: Eastern Christian Pilgrimage

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Christian pilgrimage is rooted in the eastern domain of Christianity, primarily in Palestine, where Jesus was born and accomplished his mission, and secondarily in Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism. The fact that Jerusalem became the focal point of Christian pilgrimage is not surprising. For the Israelites, the Temple in Jerusalem had long served as the locus of the pilgrimage prescribed by their religious tradition.

The meaning of pilgrimage in ancient Israel and in early Christianity is similar yet differs markedly in one point: for the Israelite, a visit to the Temple was a requirement of faith to be fulfilled annually; for the Christian, that requirement had been fulfilled once and for all by Jesus Christ in his own final pilgrimage to the Temple. Therefore, the Christian pilgrimage became a journey to fulfill personal needs of piety rather than collective requirements. Understanding Christian pilgrimage and appreciating forms of Eastern Christian pilgrimage that have persisted for centuries necessitates, nevertheless, an examination of the meaning and form of pilgrimages in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament.

Pilgrimage in the Old Testament

Ancient pilgrimage sites in the history of Israel were usually linked to a marvellous event in the life of an individual Israelite or in the collective history of the community. The site for a sanctuary was not arbitrarily chosen but was designated by God in a theophany (or divine manifestation) as, for example, Jacob's dream on his way to Haran (Gn. 28:1022). The memory of the glorious event was made concrete by the erection of an altar. The journeys of Abraham, Moses, and the other patriarchs, the exile of the Israelites from Egypt and their forty-year journey through the desert were all pilgrimages, in the sense that they were the means to an end: the possession of the land where milk and honey flows and where God has made his rest (Dt. 12:9; Ps. 95:11, 132:814). After the building of the Temple, in which rested the ark of the covenant, Jerusalem became the goal for Israelite pilgrims. It was the sacred obligation of each Israelite to make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, anticipating in this way the eschatological pilgrimage to God's city where all the nations of the world would gather at the end of time to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

Significance of Pilgrimage in the New Testament

The importance and meaning of pilgrimage is not explicit in the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels ascribe to Christ only one journey to Jerusalem on the occasion of the Passover feast (except for Luke's account of Jesus' pilgrimage with his parents at age twelve). John, however, assumes the regular participation of Christ in the pilgrimage feasts (Jn. 2:13, 6:4, 11:55, 7:2, and 10:22). The four evangelists are in accord in their messianic interpretation of Jesus Christ's final journey to Jerusalem, which culminates in the events of his crucifixion and resurrection. In this way, Christ fulfills for all time the eschatological pilgrimage into the city of God and inaugurates the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, one no longer needs to buy and sell sacrificial animals for the offering at the temple; according to the Pauline epistles, Christ has eliminated the need for sacrifice, having become himself both the sacrificed lamb and the high priest who entered behind the veil into the Holy of Holies (Heb. 6:920).

The theme of exile occurs again and again in the New Testament writings (1 Pt. 1:117, 2:11; Heb. 13:14; cf. Gn. 23:34; Ps. 39:1213, 119:19; Acts 7:629.) For the early Christians viewed their lives as the time of pilgrims in exile, and the destination of this journey was the heavenly city of Jerusalem. So powerful was this idea that the Greek word paroikia, which means "sojourning in a foreign land," came to designate the fundamental unit of the Christian community, the parish.

Early Christian Pilgrimage

Imperial influence and not religious obligation became the greatest single motivating force in the growth and development of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Constantine's church-building program on the holy sites of Jerusalem (begun after the Council of Nicaea in 325) invited many Christians to go and see the sacred places where Jesus was born, lived, worked, and was crucified and raised.

As pilgrimage to the holy places of Christendom became more common, the corporate life of the church was affected as well, through liturgical development. Many of the early pilgrims came to Palestine with a desire to see the places described in biblical episodes, a desire that combined historical curiosity and pious zeal. The pattern of worship conducted at each site by the pilgrims, the central feature of which was the reading of the relevant passage from the Bible, gave rise eventually to an annually recurring cycle of liturgical festivals in commemoration of the life of Christ. In these celebrations too, the central feature remained a reading of the biblical narrative, appropriately chosen to suit not only the place but also the liturgical season.

Another significant feature of Christian pilgrimage liturgies was the practice of numerous processions. "The desire to embrace all the principal holy places in the course of the celebrations, combined with the possibility of commemorating the events of the gospel at the actual places where they were believed to have occurred, produced a form of worship distinguished by its constant movement and its arduous length" (Hunt, p. 114). These processions remind one of ag, the Hebrew word for pilgrimage feasts, the root meaning of which is "to dance" or "to move in circles."

It is noteworthy that the churches that have maintained a strong liturgical tradition, particularly all of the ancient churches of the East, have lived these pilgrimage themes symbolically through their cyclical liturgical celebrations. As pilgrims they need not fulfill either the pilgrimage to the Temple or to the holy places of Christendom; rather, a spiritual participation in the life of Christ, expressed through liturgical celebrations, is their pilgrimage. For example, Gregory of Nyssa maintains that Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives, and the empty tomb should always be before the eyes of the true Christian as spiritual pointers to the godly life.

The same attitude gave rise to another form of pilgrimage: visits to the holy men and women who had chosen to give themselves to a life of perpetual prayerthe monks and ascetics. Basil of Caesarea, who in 351 made the journey to Palestine and later to Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, hardly mentions the holy places; he states that the object of his journey was to visit the monks and ascetics, to stay with them in order to learn the secret of their holy lives. Basil wanted to learn the method of the personal spiritual pilgrimage, the destination of which was the heavenly city of God experienced on an inner level.

The pilgrim Egeria (late fourth century) refers to another tradition, that of the pilgrimages to martyria (churches that have been built on the tomb of a saint or a martyr). She notes that the monks in Charra, a region of Mesopotamia, rarely come out of seclusion but that they do so on Easter and on the feast of the martyr to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the martyrium.

This tradition still continues. Many pilgrims go to the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece and to monasteries in Egypt, Syria, and other parts of the world. Among these monasteries there are many that were built near martyria or near sites that have biblical importance. In Egypt there is the monastery of Dair al-Muharraq, the site where the holy family rested and took refuge in their flight from Herod. Each year in Dair al-Muharraq, as at all martyria, on the feast day of the saint, pilgrims come to commemorate liturgically and later through festivities the saint in whose name the martyrium or shrine was built.

Thus, personal piety for the Eastern Christian has found expression beyond the liturgical life. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to martyria, and to the cells of monks has given rise to numerous customs and traditions that symbolically perpetuate the main theme of pilgrimage: the yearning of the exile to reach his destination, the promised land, the city where God rests and encounters his people.

Customs and Traditions Associated with Pilgrimage

Armenians, Copts, Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Ethiopians, and other Eastern Christians share common traditions of pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage to Jerusalem

There is no particularly appropriate time in one's life when one ought to make a pilgrimage. However, the pilgrimage par excellence, the journey to Jerusalem, generally becomes possible late in one's life. Once in Jerusalem, a pilgrim considers that the serious occupations of his or her life have ended. Having seen "death conquered" at the site of Christ's resurrection (the holy sepulcher), the pilgrim looks forward to his or her own death, sometimes desiring to die in Jerusalem. The Armenian term mahdesi ("one who has seen death") aptly describes this state. This title of honor is given to a pilgrim returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Russian pilgrims also acknowledge the overcoming of death by taking white shrouds to Jerusalem. They bathe in the Jordan River, the scene of John's baptisms, shrouded in white, in evocation of the awakened dead on Resurrection Morning. Other Eastern Christians bring their white shrouds and on Holy Friday place them on Christ's tomb, anoint them with oil from the lamps burning there, and perfume them with sweet-smelling incense. A pilgrim designated as a mahdesi is one who has seen the Holy Fire on Easter and who has received a tattoo on the inner right wrist, depicting most often a cross and the date of the pilgrimage.

The ceremony of the Holy Fire

Conducted jointly by all of the Eastern churches at midday on Easter Eve in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the ceremony of the Holy Fire is of uncertain origin, but it derives from the ritual and symbolism of the primitive church. It symbolizes the triumph of the Christian faith. The Eastern Orthodox patriarch and the Armenian patriarch (representing also the Copts, the Ethiopians, and the Syrians) enter through the door over the tomb, then emerge, each carrying a sheaf of lighted candles. This light quickly spreads among the people present, who light their own candles from it. It is said that some pilgrims take pains to carry the flame home unextinguished, preserving it in a lantern.

It is also the custom of the Armenian patriarch to distribute wafers with the resurrection imprint to all the pilgrims. This may be a symbolic vestige of a custom of hospitality that was practiced by the monks in Egypt and elsewhere in the East. Isolated in the desert, monks had to provide pilgrims with both food and lodging. As the number of pilgrims increased, the monks began to give tokens of hospitality, most often in the form of the fruit they had grown. The pilgrim Egeria called this the monks' "blessing."

Vows, offerings, and healing

Whether rich or poor, the pilgrims carry gifts of offering to the churches on the holy sites. Many bring their work or the work of skillful craftsmen; vessels and vestments to be used for the liturgical rites. Some contribute toward the building of guest rooms in the holy city where pilgrims can stay. Traditionally, pilgrims spend many months, as much as a whole year, in pilgrimage. Originally, they would come before Christmas and stay until after Easter in order to participate in the events commemorating the life of Christ. Gradually, that time has been shortened to the season of Lent and Easter.

Pilgrims come often to fulfill vows they have made. Some also bring with them the petitions of friends. If the request is for healing, they bring silver charms that represent the part of the body in need of healing. These they leave on or near the icon of the saint to whom they pray.

Returning home

The return of pilgrims to their homes has been marked ceremoniously in some Armenian communities. Usually a group of pilgrims make the journey together. Upon their return, they go to the parish church, where prayers of thanksgiving are offered on their behalf for having been able to fulfill their pilgrimage. At the conclusion of the service, the pilgrims distribute to the congregation objects of devotion that they have brought home.

They bring home oil from the lanterns that have been lighted in holy places to use for anointing and healing. Olives from two-thousand-year-old trees in the garden of Gethsemane are treasured also. Most valuable, however, are the candles that were lighted in various holy places, especially from the Holy Fire on Easter.


L. M. Orrieux's "Le pèlerinage dans la Bible," Lumière et vie 15 (SeptemberOctober 1966): 534, is a concise yet comprehensive study of the meaning of pilgrimage in the Old and New Testaments. The rise and development of Christian pilgrimage are presented in two important works: E. D. Hunt's Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, ad 312460 (Oxford, 1984), a thorough study that takes into account the historical, political, and liturgical aspects of Christian pilgrimage, and John Wilkinson's excellent translation of Egeria's account of her travels, with exhaustive commentary, Egeria's Travels (London, 1971). While the pilgrim routes and churches are discussed in Wilkinson's book, the study of the Jerusalem liturgy holds an important place and is based on the detailed information given by Egeria. L. G. A. Cust's The Status Quo in the Holy Places (Jerusalem, 1980) is a descriptive account of the holy places and the practices that are carried out by their principal caretakers, the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Roman Catholics. For a description of the ceremony of the Holy Fire, see pages 6670. Concerning pilgrimage sites of the most ancient monasteries and shrines, see Otto F. A. Meinardus's Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert (revised ed., Cairo, 1989) and Erhart Kaestner's Mount Athos (London, 1961).

New Sources

Meinardus, Otto Friedrich August. Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages. Cairo and New York, 2002.

Smith, Mark. S., and Elizabeth Block-Smith. The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus. Sheffield, U.K., 1997.

Sirarpi Feredjian-Aivazian (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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