Saturday, December 5

We Are a Pilgrim People

The readings for this Sunday focus on the coming of Christ as a journey, in lieu of this season of Advent. One of the more prominent and underlying themes we can see in various parts of the reading is the theme of pilgrimage, the way or the journey. The original name for the Christian movement was "The Way," before we were first called "Christians" (see Acts 11:26). This hearkens back to Jesus's statement in John 14:6, where he calls himself "The Way." It was a prevalent theme in the Hebrew Bible, as many of the Hebrews were a nomadic people, traveling here and there - also seen in Abraham's wanderings, the Exodus, and the Babylonian Exile. Now, the word adventus, meaning
"coming" or "presence," is a Latin translation of the Greek parousia. In the Christian Scriptures, St. Paul often used the term parousia (see 1 Cor 1:7; 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1,8,9, for example). In the Greek world, it was used in reference to the visit of a high-ranking government official or dignitary1 The term was used to describe how the local citizens of a township would meet the approaching public figures before the figures entered the city walls. In other words, the people would go out and greet the dignitary, welcoming them into the city.

Bearing this background in mind, one of the readings for Sunday says, "stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One... Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you... For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground" (Baruch 5:5-7). Perhaps one way of looking at this passage is an image of masses of people journeying across it to herald the coming (parousia) of the king. This week's gospel, Luke 3, after providing the historical context goes on to explain, "the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" In today's world, we may give John the Baptist's job description as "highway construction." His role was to herald the coming - the adventus or parousia - of Jesus. His role, similar to those in ancient Greece welcoming a dignitary, was to prepare the way and be there to greet and welcome his king.

This September, I made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia. I had gone to Philadelphia in order to see the visiting Pope Francis on his final few days in the United States. This pilgrimage involved walking the length of one of the bridges connecting New Jersey to Pennsylvania, as well as walking several miles on foot within the city in order to finally come to the park, along the road where Pope Francis would be later that day. I had ended up at the park around 7:00am, and it occurred to me that the Pope would not be driving by on his way to the Mass until around 4:00pm. This was a long period of waiting for his coming. The crowd broke into a roar when the man in the white cassock came around the bend, and everyone tried to capture the moment on their cameras (guilty) and join in the excitement of it all.

The event reminded me in many ways of the parousia spoken of in the New Testament and in Greco-Roman literature. It is the closest point of reference I have of what the ancients experienced. A similar thing happened with Pope Francis - although he had already done several things throughout the weekend in Philadelphia, nonetheless, he was still welcomed by a throng of people - a pilgrim people - who had been anxiously awaiting and preparing for his coming. Indeed, the United States had been preparing all year for the coming of the Pope! The question we much continually ask ourselves this Advent, then, is an internal and personal one: how are we preparing for the coming of our king? It was incredible to see the amount of preparation and enthusiasm when Pope Francis announced he was coming to the U.S., but we should also ask ourselves: would we welcome in the stranger, extend a hand to the poor and the needy, help to uplift the downcast and care for the oppressed? The Christian tradition sees God in each individual. Do we recognize God in others? Would we be willing to go out of our cities, or in this case our comfort zones, and welcome in those whom society looks down upon?

The journey of traveling to Philadelphia, the enthusiasm and excitement as we awaited the Pope to come in the hours leading up to his arrival, and the grand welcome upon his arrival were striking to me. But it also raise a convicting question, leading me to wonder how much more we ought to welcome the homeless, the marginalized, the veterans, the immigrants and others in our world today. The growing problem in the United States of immigrants being banned from entering, for example, is in stark contrast to the welcome given to Pope Francis this September. I believe the Pope would agree that if we are to truly live out the Christian message, we too must be willing to go outside of our city walls - or rather, be willing to go beyond our boundaries, our prejudices and the "walls" we have built up - and extend a welcome to the marginalized and oppressed, and the immigrant. This, we may say, is how we go out and welcome the parousia of the king today, all the while remembering that we too are a pilgrim people.

[1] Young, R Garland. "The Times And The Seasons: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11." Review & Expositor 96.2 (1999): 274. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web.

1 comment:

  1. This article was very insightful. Thank you for the reminder to embrace the 'parousia' of God in the marginalized of our society during this season of advent.