In the Church Lectionary Saturday was the day we remembered James, son of Zebedee and brother of John – the Sons of Thunder! He was present at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane, and may be remembered, with his brother, for asking Jesus if they might sit at his right hand and at his left in the Kingdom – though this request was also attributed to their mother!
James was the first apostle to be martyred, executed by Herod in Jerusalem, so the legend that he preached the Gospel in Spain cannot be true, though the claim that his remains lie in the cathedral at Compostela is slightly more plausible. True or not, the mediaeval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has continued to this day and the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James – is a popular challenge, taken up for all sorts of reasons.
There have been numerous books written about the experience, as well as films produced, and a few years ago one such film was the basis of our Lent Course. It gave us the opportunity to discuss pilgrims and pilgrimages and their significance.
The pilgrimage I undertook to the Holy Land in 2013 organized by the Oxford Diocese was an experience which I will never forget. We were a large party, though split into two for most of our visits, yet meeting up for our daily worship. As we visited the various sites mentioned in the Gospels and read about the events which occurred there, it was possible to feel transported to Biblical times – when not distracted by other parties and by traffic! The culmination of our pilgrimage was walking the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross – in silence, with cameras put away. Just as Jesus did on his last journey, we had to make our way through crowds, though there were some stations which were more isolated. At each station an appropriate passage of scripture was read and a brief prayer offered, before moving on up the hill to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We each carried a small wooden cross which had been blessed at a service held before we began our journey.
There is a sense in which the whole of our lives is a pilgrimage; going from the stage to stage, station to station, each of us developing from childhood to adulthood and on to old age, before reaching our final resting place. There are undoubtedly rocky places along the road, obstacles to be overcome – the current pandemic being quite a significant one. As in the journey along the El Camino and the Via Dolorosa, we have companions along the way, some for a single stage, others for a significant part of our travel. And there is one Companion who is constantly by our side, even when we do not acknowledge Him and think that we are doing very well by ourselves. It is at the end of our journey that we will finally meet Him face to face.
God of our pilgrimage,
you have willed that the gate of mercy
should stand open for those who trust in you:
look upon us with your favour
that we who follow the path of your will
may never wander from the way of life.