So, if you were iced in this week—what did you do?
Maybe some of you were dreaming of warmer locales?
I had some friends who made a well-timed trip to Puerto Rico this week—and they had the gall to post their pictures of bright sandy beaches and palm trees. Frolicking around in bathing suits while the rest of us were scraping layers of ice off our cars. Man, that was so rude.
But I took some time to daydream about traveling and yes, I even went so far as to book some flights for this summer’s vacation. And that helped a little in this bitterly cold week, you know? Travel is exciting, you get to go out to somewhere new, to be exposed to new things—new foods, new traditions, new climates.
I love the anticipation of a trip—planning your itinerary, making your reservations, packing your bags. That’s half the fun. When the destination is exciting enough, even the airline security check feels like a crucial piece of the adventure.
Now today, we’re embarking on a journey. A forty-day journey through the season of Lent—our destination is Easter, the day of resurrection. It’s a spiritual journey, of course, not a physical one. We’re not buying tickets or packing bags, but this is a journey that involves preparation and planning. There is waiting and anticipation and build up. And when we finally set off—a little delayed because of the ice this week—well, this is a journey that can truly change us, all the way to the empty tomb.
Lent is a reflection of the Gospel story that we just heard, in some way we’re following in Jesus’ footsteps. According to Mark, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John and then immediately went out into the wilderness. For forty-days he was out in that barren, rocky land, with no food or shelter. The devil tempting him at every turn. Each day, Jesus sinks deeper and deeper. Yet just at the nick of time, God provided, the angels and wild animals waited on him, we’re told.
And it was only after those forty days that Jesus was ready to venture out to Galilee to begin his ministry, to call his disciples, to perform those miracles we’ve heard about, and to take that other journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Forty days. That’s the Bible way of saying “a really long time.” Noah was in the ark for forty days. Moses on the mountaintop for forty days. The prophet Elijah in exile for 40 days. Jesus in the wilderness for forty days—a really long journey.
Now we have a special word for this type of religious journey. It’s called a pilgrimage. We are pilgrims. A pilgrimage takes you out of what is familiar and known—your home, your church, your town—and it propels you out into the world, into the wilderness, the unknown.
Pilgrimages were especially popular in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims would walk these special pilgrimage routes, often in the footsteps of a saint. Year-round, but particularly during Lent, they’d flock to some shrine or cathedral or holy site far away.
They were seeking to walk closer with Jesus, to be changed and transfigured, to learn something about themselves and about others and about God. They’d carry a clam shell, a symbol of their baptism. And everywhere they went, that symbol indicated to all that a person was a pilgrim. Baptism was the central symbol, a catalyst, the driving force behind a pilgrimage.
Jesus was baptized and went of on a pilgrimage into the wilderness. The pious pilgrims of long ago were baptized and journeyed down paths toward Rome or Canterbury or the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Spain. And we are baptized and we too set out on a pilgrimage following the way of Jesus. This is a journey that spans all our lives, one that ends only at our deaths.
So for us, Lent is like one of those intense side trips in a much longer journey. It’s a time for us to reorient ourselves, to check the maps of our lives and see where we’re going. Maybe we’re on the right track. Maybe we just need a little course correction. Maybe we’re hopelessly lost.
Lent can be a difficult slog. Easter may seem like it’s nowhere in sight. Right now, all we may taste is the bitterness of pain and grief and loss—joy may seem like a distant memory, like a home that’s just a faded memory—we’ve been gone so long.
Jesus felt that anguish out in the desert. He was tempted to take things into his own hands, to save himself for his own sake. But for us, he modeled a trust in God, a confidence that God will provide everything we need for our journey. And God did provide for Jesus, just as God provides for us.
God has given us faith and life and hope through our baptisms, something to carry with us like a well-packed suitcase. God feeds us at the table. God cares for us through fellow travelers—the people sitting here and unexpected strangers we meet along the way. God lifts us up and out of sin and death, not because of anything we have done, not because we’re good people and we try hard, but because God loves us in the face of all our flaws and shortcomings, in spite of those times when we go down the wrong path or get lost along the way.
That’s who God is, that’s how we see God through Jesus: one who travels into the very heart of death to proclaim life, to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat. God makes a covenant, a promise, never to leave our side. This season, Lent is the time to remember all the ways God remains faithful.
When I was in the Boy Scouts, before we went out on some major trip to some high-adventure destination like the Boundary Waters of Minnesota or Philmont in New Mexico, we’d do these things called shakedowns. A shakedown was a short little trip, an overnight, where we’d pack all our gear and act as if we were on the actual trek. And it gave us a chance to break things in, to try things out, to figure out what worked and what didn’t work. It gave us the confidence to make “the big one.” We already knew what we were doing, we were ready.
The season of Lent, these 40 days, it’s like a shakedown. Even if life is going well for you, even if you’re happy and satisfied, Lent gives you a chance to practice for whenever the going gets tough—those lean times, the hard slogs, the trudges through despair (because they’re going to happen, sooner or later). And if you’re in the middle of a trying time…come to Lent as a respite, an oasis in the desert, come inside, put down your pack, REST. This is time when you can drink from the well more deeply, to hear the message of God’s mercy and grace even more clearly—to remind yourself that you are indeed beloved by God, no matter what.
The pilgrimage of Lent changes us in ways that we can never anticipate. Author Terry Pratchett once wrote this about traveling:
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
Like Jesus, with Jesus, we have gone away. We’ve left home. We’re on a journey through the wilderness. And when we return to the comfort of home, the joy of Easter, we hope to see things with new eyes, to perceive God and our neighbors differently. May we be transformed in a way that others can see. More trusting, more open to God’s faithfulness.
As they say on the pilgrimage trail: Bon camino! Happy trails!
Let us pray:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.