A number of years ago, on a journey to the Holy Land, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. As I descended a long stone staircase, I looked up. On either side, hundreds of tiny crosses were etched into the stone walls. Sometimes many crosses were clustered in one small area. In some places, there were only two or three. When I asked our guide, she said these crosses had been carved into stone by early Christians, sent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land from far-flung countries. Their villages had saved money to send them to the holy places about which they had heard. So when the pilgrim reached this holy place in the heart of the HolyCity, he or she etched crosses in the stone to represent each person in his or her village back home. In this way, all were here—not just the one.
All of us are pilgrims in one way or another, on journeys of all kinds. The people of God can see our journeys told in biblical stories—journeys full of wanderings through rocky mountains, parched deserts, mountain-top experiences, frustration in the midst of life, conflict and divisions within families. You and I wander, explore, sometimes stumble in our own pilgrimages. So it seems appropriate to consider the season of Lent as a pilgrimage—a time to stop and reflect. A time to question whether we have stumbled down a wrong path, acted unfairly, injured another, disappointed God. What can we do to repent—to turn our life around? To go in another direction?
The season of Lent is the most penitential season of our Church year. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this Wednesday— and ends on Easter Sunday. It lasts forty days and nights, not counting Sundays, the last of which is the Sunday of the Passion, or Palm Sunday. The final week of Lent is Holy Week—the most sacred week of the year. Lent has always been a time of discipline and preparation. In the very early Church, “Lent was the time of preparation for the Easter baptism of converts to the faith. Persons who were to receive the sacrament of Baptism. . . were expected to fast and prepare during these weeks [of Lent.]” These Christian converts were baptized, then they received their first communion at the Easter Vigil, the evening before Easter Sunday.
For practicing Christians, Lent was a time of discipline and devotional acts. Thousands of pilgrims began journeys then that ended in Jerusalem during Holy Week. These pilgrimages, extra disciplines and fasting were all done to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. As many of these shrines and holy places still exist today, especially in Jerusalem,
contemporary pilgrims are able to re-trace the steps of the ancients and share in the understanding in our journeys. Both understand that neither the outward journey nor the inward one have just a beginning and an end. As one writer has noted, “Pilgrimage is never a dash to a destination. The divine encounter can happen anywhere—and everywhere—along the way. . .again and again. . .the physical journey we [are] tracing [parallels] the inward journey every believer makes.”
Lent has four major themes. The first is baptism. In the early Church, only adults were baptized and only at the Easter Vigil. (Baptism of infants and children did not become a custom until the Middle Ages.) During the forty days of Lent, candidates for baptism underwent vigorous instruction about the Christian faith. They publicly acknowledged their sins and their need to repent. They prayed, and were supported by prayers of others. They fasted and practiced other acts of personal discipline.
Yet Lent was not just a time of preparation for new converts. It was also a time for reflection and restoration of folks considered to be sinful. Sinful folks were those whose sins had separated them from others. Perhaps they had offered obedience to the emperor or they had denied Christianity in word or deed. Maybe they had fled Jerusalem instead of dying as a martyr. Maybe they were people whose occupations were not acceptable in the Christian community—soldiers, tax collectors, teachers of pagan beliefs. Lent gave them a chance to fast, pray, perform devotional acts—so they could be reincorporated into the Christian community.
Fasting is the second major theme of Lent. We don’t hear much about fasting these days; however, fasting was a well-accepted form of spiritual practice in ancient Jewish and Christian traditions. Brian McLaren notes our routine of three meals (or more) every day: “To forego normal eating—whether through a complete. . .or partial fast—becomes a kind of dietary pilgrimage, a way of making sure we haven’t let the rhythms of the everyday put us to sleep, a way to make sure our habits have not become addictions, that our kitchens have not become prisons.” We might consider some fasting this Lent—perhaps we will choose not to eat red meat or to give up sweets or chocolate. We could also give up smoking or drinking, or not eating out so often. What we give up is not important. It is the discipline involved that reminds us why we are doing this.
A third major theme of Lent is discipleship. Here is where we ask ourselves what it might cost to follow Jesus in an ongoing ministry of servanthood. For example, if you and I give up things during Lent, do we only deny ourselves for six weeks? What happens to discipline and discipleship after Easter Sunday? Christians know that Lent does end with resurrection joy. Yet real discipleship does not end at the Easter Vigil. To be a disciple of Jesus the Christ is an ongoing reality in our earthly Christian pilgrimage.
The fourth major theme of Lent is reconciliation. People in ancient times confessed their sins so they could be restored to Christian fellowship; thus, they showed publicly their desire to be reconciled to God, to each other, to themselves. During Lent, we look inwardly at our own selves. Then—and only then—can we look outwardly at others. We ask God to show us just how separated we are. We pray that God will show us how to forgive ourselves. We pray that God will help us to say “I’m sorry” to people we have wronged, people we have talked about, people from whom we have become estranged. With God’s help, relationships broken by pride, bitterness, anger or jealousy can now be healed and strengthened.
Faith communities use different things to symbolize the time of Lenten repentance and reflection. Worship space is more stark and solemn. There are no flowers on the altar. We use the color purple—a symbol for both royalty and repentance. You may also see some off-white, raw linen or unbleached fabrics, which symbolize the use of sackcloth in the Hebrew scriptures as a public sign of repentance and grief. During Lent, the hymns and service music are somber. We do not say or sing alleluia and do not use the Gloria in excelsis until the Easter Vigil—all in keeping with the penitential season of Lent.
On Ash Wednesday this week, some of us will begin our Lenten disciplines: giving up favorite foods or alcohol. Some of us will take on extra disciplines: spiritual reading, Lenten book study, prayer—especially with our children—journaling, retreats. Whatever our Lenten discipline, we must remember that we are all pilgrims. It is good to slow down, to think, to reflect seriously about our lives. Lent helps us to think about our lives as a pilgrimage, to put our lives in proper perspective. To step outside ourselves for a time and see where we have started, where we are, where we may be headed.
In this holy season, may we join together as fellow pilgrims on the way. May this journey with Jesus—one that will end with the Via Dolorosa—the Way of the Cross—deepen us and draw us ever near to the Holy One who died for us. Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Pictures accessed through Google. “Keeping a Holy Lent” fromhttp:// www.kingofpeace.org.
 Joseph P. Russell, Ed., The New Prayer Book Guide to Christian Education, (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 1996), 63.
 Elizabeth Sherrill, “Journey to the End of the Earth, Part One,” Guideposts, December, 1992, 62.
 Brian McLaren, Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 24.