When citizens of the United States hear the word pilgrim, they immediately think of the Puritans, who were among the earliest European settlers of this country. This is particularly true around the time of Thanksgiving, when the words pilgrim and Puritan are often used interchangeably. However, the religious meaning of the word is often better understood in other countries, where pilgrimage is more a religious practice than a matter of migration. Many people make pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or to Lourdes in France, or Fatima in Portugal. We read in the writings of the Second Vatican Council that we are a pilgrim people. Just what does this mean?
Pilgrimage is an apt characterization of the journey upon which we embark today. Liturgically, we begin the season of Advent. In this context, we are on a journey toward the feast of Christmas. On a much deeper theological level, we are beginning anew the journey to eschatological fulfillment. In other words, we are beginning our yearly re-enactment of the drama of our salvation, beginning with the mystery of the Incarnation (Christmas) and culminating in the celebration of Christ’s ultimate victory (Christ the King). Today, we take our first steps on the way.
Our lifelong journey toward fulfillment is going to be a complicated and tedious one; and lest we lose track of our ultimate destination, it is placed before us at the outset. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah uses the image of pilgrimage to describe the great gathering of the future. He announces that all nations will stream toward the mountain of the Lord, the place where God dwells. There they will all be instructed in the ways of God, and in response they will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” What a glorious image! What a poignant sentiment! What a timely promise!
The responsorial psalm is a joyous hymn originally meant to be sung as pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem, the site of the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. As we sing it today, it calls us to reflect on various aspects of this moving season. Liturgically, we are invited to look longingly toward Christmas, the feast that celebrates the Incarnation of God among us. It is a shame if children are the only ones who get excited about Christmas. Where along the way toward adulthood did we lose the thrill that should be ours at the thought that God has become one of us? Theologically, the psalm encourages us to set our sights on our own salvation and the salvation of our world, when Christ will bring to fulfillment the promise of ultimate peace.
When we turn to Paul’s message to the Romans, and to us today as well, we are told what we must do to help bring about this vision of peace. He exhorts us, “Conduct yourselves properly.” He warns us against “orgies and drunken-ness...promiscuity and lust,” lives of self-indulgence of any kind. More than that, he condemns the “rivalry and jealousy” that lead to parish or family feuds and alienation, and to ethnic or national antagonism and wars. If we are genuine pilgrims on the way to God’s eschatological fulfillment, we must act as pilgrims, not as tourists. We must enter wholeheartedly into the pilgrimage, leaving behind whatever might hinder our progress, accepting whatever hardship our journey might entail.
The Gospel seems to paint a dire picture. It describes how the disaster of the flood took the people of the time of Noah unaware, and it speaks of not knowing when the thief is coming during the night; it says that some will be taken and some will be left. Actually, the point of Jesus’ teaching is the unpreparedness of the people in each case, not the tragedy itself. Had they been prepared, there would have been no tragedy. It also presumes that had they known when misfortune was going to occur, they would have been prepared. And that is the point. They did not know, and neither do we. And so Jesus admonishes us: “Stay awake! Be prepared at all times! For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
On this first Sunday of Advent, we set off on a pilgrimage to the fulfillment of God’s promises and plans for our salvation, salvation from self-indulgence and disdain of others, salvation from small-mindedness and fear of life itself. We have before us a vision of universal peace and reconciliation among nations and religious bodies, among ethnic groups and families. Not too far down the road (Christmas), the Son of God himself will join us. There is great anticipation in our step, urgency in our preparedness. This is the scenario placed before us today. It is up to us to decide whether or not we wish to join the pilgrimage.