We have reached a milestone as a parish. It is not a milestone that we necessarily knew that we would reach, and it certainly is not one that we had any desire to reach. You see, it was four months ago today that we had to shift how we were doing church. Church of the Epiphany moved from our regular rhythm of worship and gathering as a community to doing those same things by way of online technology. While we have done our very best as a parish to create meaningful online substitutes for our ministries – from fellowship to outreach to formation – we know that a return to in person community is something that each of us desires in this moment. The online substitutes are like any substitute – good enough in a pinch but not nearly as good as the original.
The four month journey that we have been on is not one that we expected to be taking, but we are still left with needing to do something with this journey that we are sharing – not simply in our parish but also with people across the globe. Is it possible for us to seek deeper meaning and context out of something that has been thrust upon us and does not yet have an end date? The shared experience of the global population is something that binds us together in our humanity, and as people of faith, we have the opportunity to use this moment as one that helps us along our spiritual journey in the good company of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we did not enter into this journey of our own volition, it is a journey that we are on nonetheless, and we can take a moment to use it in a way that will deepen our faith and our trust in God’s grace.
Over the last several weeks, I have been reading a book by William T. Cavanaugh called Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. The book has much to offer in shaping our thinking about being a community that is firmly committed to the building up of the kingdom of God, and Cavanaugh pushes us to understand the church as something larger than a mere collection of individuals. In the chapter on globalization and the church’s response to it, Cavanaugh uses four archetypes to relate the impact of globalization on humanity and how the church might be able to respond to it. One such archetype is that of pilgrim. Pilgrims are on a journey, but the journey is different from that of the tourist. The act of pilgrimage was “a kenotic movement, a stripping away of the external sources of stability in one’s life.” To go on pilgrimage was to leave behind those things that made life a little easier, a little more comfortable, and perhaps a little more predictable. The way of the pilgrim was the way of the cross: self emptying and arduous. The journey was filled with unknowns, and the perils of the journey were part and parcel of what the pilgrim was seeking in taking on the act of pilgrimage. As the pilgrim journeyed, the pilgrim sought to move towards the center of the pilgrim’s being. The pilgrim sought to grow closer to God through the holy places that were visited on the pilgrimage. The entire journey was one that was intended to create a new bond in the relationship between God and pilgrim.
Now, it is important for us to recognize that the current shared experience of the world is not to be romanticized nor that the pain of this moment be overlooked. By now, many (if not all) of us know someone who has been impacted by the novel coronavirus. We may know someone that has been infected with it, someone who has died because of it, or someone who has lost her job. Regardless the form it takes, the virus has had real and painful impacts on people we love. As we have journeyed this journey of pandemic, we have felt pain directly and indirectly. We have felt the arduousness of the journey in very real ways, and it is important that we not relate that pain, and the suffering that comes with it, to an action being taken by God. Indeed, I fully believe that God is sharing in the pain that we are feeling in this moment. God, like us, is weeping for the loss of life that has followed in the wake of the virus.
To be a pilgrim in this journey is to know the pain that comes with the virus. It is to know that God is in our midst and available to us as we grapple with very real impacts of the virus. It is to know that the virus is not part of some divine plan to right the world. Instead, it is a reflection of the fallen condition of the cosmos that is redeemed in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. To be a pilgrim on this journey is to have faith that God is journeying alongside us and knows the pain and the fear that accompanies this journey.
In the middle ages, pilgrims were wanderers that travelled on foot. They joined together in mixed groups of classes and peoples to enter into a shared journey that transgressed national borders and identities. For us to be pilgrims through this pandemic, we will need to take on some of those same habits. We are being united together as people, and we are invited to find communion with God and with our neighbors. We are invited to see the world a bit more clearly in our own context and to grapple with what it might mean for us to take on the mantle of building up the kingdom of God in this corner of creation, in this corner of God’s hundred acre woods.
The pilgrimage of our day will be, like the pilgrimages of the middle ages, filled with difficulty and with loss. As fellow pilgrims, we are called to be present to each other as we experience the pain of the pilgrimage. We, as fellow pilgrims, hallow the ground on which we are traversing by inviting God into our center and by seeking communion with God along the journey.
The pilgrimage we are on is not one that we asked for or sought for ourselves. It is one that comes with real pain and real suffering. It is one that is filled with all sorts of difficulties. It is one in which God remains close to us and seeks to buoy us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the good times and especially during the difficult ones.