The only time I’ve experienced enormous crowds (not large but enormous crowds) was on a visit to China a couple of years ago. It was hard to get used to the press of people at many of the tourist destinations we visited, but the largest and most aggressive throngs were at the train stations. The stations we went into were many times larger than 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and thousands of people were continually entering and exiting them, narrowing down to what passed as “lines” to go through the security checks as they went in. It took me a while to understand that it was not rudeness that led to the pushing and elbowing involved with moving through. It was simply the only way to move forward in that mass of humanity. If our standards of crowd behavior were followed there you might never get where you were going. I got fairly good at elbowing by the time the trip was over, but I’m not a big fan of big crowds.
Those pictures that sometimes appear in the newspapers of huge crowds of people, often Muslims or Hindus, on pilgrimage to one holy site or another kind of make me shudder. There’s a sort of vulnerability inherent in such settings that I find scary. There’s a kind roiling energy that seems just a misstep or rumor away from potential disaster. The fact is, people sometimes do get crushed and trampled to death in such settings. But pilgrimage is a critical part of many world religions. In Christianity and Judaism, pilgrimages are mostly voluntary. If we choose to go at all, it’s often in manageable groups led by experienced guides with comfortable accommodations and modern transportation. But in Islam, for example, the faithful are expected to make certain pilgrimages at least once in their lifetimes if at all possible.
In ancient Israel, the place of pilgrimage was the holy city of Jerusalem, specifically the temple in Jerusalem. And because much the Jewish population was so geographically close to the city, many people made these pilgrimages yearly. As the small groups from outlying regions and towns and villages drew closer to their destination, they converged on the roads leading to the city gates forming large, boisterous crowds pulsing with the energy of many human beings almost at their common destination.
This day, Palm Sunday, is the day we remember a particular pilgrimage that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. It was time for Passover and there was no better place to celebrate this central feast of Judaism than the city of Jerusalem. The royal city of David was a potent symbol of the fulfilled promise of a land, a promise originally made to Abraham and realized many centuries later after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This pilgrimage took on special significance in difficult times like those in which Jesus lived. While the people still resided in the promise land, they did so under the yoke of Roman rule. That rule was often oppressive. And yet, they lived with the hope and expectation that God would save them again, that God would send them a messiah, a direct descendent of David, to lead them to freedom and to rule them in the same pattern as David, the warrior king.
But the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is rather subdued at this point in his life and ministry compared to the Jesus in Matthew and Luke. In those accounts he immediately gets into confrontation with the religious leaders after he arrives at the temple. They are highly charged and emotional scenes. In Mark, the crowds, which don’t seem to have been as large or as raucous as they were in the other gospels, have pretty much dispersed by the time Jesus and his followers reach the temple. The gospel records that he simply went into the temple, looked around at everything, and then retired to nearby Bethany because it was late. He knows his journey is almost over, and that reality leaves him quiet and pensive.
A pilgrimage is a particular kind of journey which doesn’t necessarily have to be religious, and I’m betting most of us have made one at some point in our lives. Many tourists come to Philadelphia to visit the birthplace of our nation, and I’m guessing that what begins as a tour often turns into a pilgrimage as they gaze at the Liberty Bell or stand in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Mere curiosity is transformed into awe and wonder at these “sacred” sites of our national history.
A pilgrimage also doesn’t necessarily have to involve travel. Today we enter a week we call holy because crammed into these eight days that stretch from Palm Sunday today until Easter next Sunday are the core events that define us as Christians, that define us as people who experience the divine through God who chose to come and live among us in Jesus. Instead of traveling from one physical location to another, perhaps in a faraway place, you and I are invited to travel the spiritual and emotional landscape of our Lord’s last week. Any practiced pilgrim knows that it’s important to pay attention to the sights and sounds, the insights and revelations that happen along the way. The same is true for the spiritual pilgrimage. Each day there are things to ponder and pray about, and as we near the destination the pace picks up dramatically. A final meal, betrayal, humiliation, death, grief and fear are the desolate landscape of the heart that must be journeyed through if we want to fully experience the unparalleled joy and beauty of Easter.
But beware of the crowds. Untold millions around the globe will be joining us on the road to Calvary and despair. And like the Jewish faithful so long ago, we will all be converging on the roads that lead to the holy city Jerusalem where rumor has it there is a tomb that stands empty.