More than 2 million people flocked to northern Italy in 2010 to take a rare glimpse at the Shroud of Turin, purportedly the burial clothe of the crucified Christ, bearing His image. Another 2 million-plus pilgrims visited the shroud again in 2015.
Five hundred years ago, by contrast, Protestant Reformers renounced such pilgrimages as, at best, vain superstition. The sixteenth-century English Bible translator William Tyndale, for example, criticized pilgrims who journeyed from church to church, from shrine to shrine, from relic to relic, flitting “hither and thither for pardon.”
Nevertheless, Tyndale did value one form of pilgrimage – namely, the pilgrimage of faith, in which each Christian journeys amid danger and toil in pursuit of Christ Jesus, “the way’s end and resting place.”
Alluding to the Old Testament story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, Tyndale wrote that we are “baptized in tribulations and through the Red Sea and a great and fearful wilderness and a land of cruel giants into our natural country” – that is, “into the kingdom of life.”
Little more than a century later, John Bunyan took this theme to new heights in his classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In allegorical style, he depicts the Valley of Humiliation, Giant Despair, Doubting Castle, the Valley of the Shadow of Death and other difficulties and temptations that lie along each Christian’s spiritual path.
Even more powerfully, he focuses our attention and our hopes on Mount Zion, the Celestial City, the heavenly home that every Christian eagerly longs to reach.
According to Christian scholar and author J.I. Packer, writers like Tyndale and Bunyan teach us to “see and feel the transitoriness of this life, to think of it, with all its richness, as essentially the gymnasium and dressing-room where we are prepared for heaven, and to regard readiness to die as the first step in learning to live. …
“[They lived] in a world in which more than half the adult population died young and more than half the children born died in infancy,” Packer writes. As such, “disease, distress, discomfort, pain and death were their constant companions.”
Not surprisingly, he adds, these writers “would have been lost had they not kept their eyes on heaven and known themselves as pilgrims travelling home to the Celestial City.”
In previous generations, their emphasis on the Celestial City was handed down through songs about the Christian’s pilgrimage to heaven, like Isaac Watts’ hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion.” Or like Sanford F. Bennett’s later song, “There’s a Land that is Fairer Than Day” (“Sweet by and by”). Or like this 18th-century hymn by Samuel Stennett: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand // And cast a wistful eye // To Canaan’s fair and happy land // Where my possessions lie.”
Stennett continues in the chorus: “I am bound for the Promised Land.”
Writing about this hymn three years ago on Churchleaders.com, worship pastor and scholar Matthew Westerholm notes, “You can almost feel the ache, the yearning for what’s promised and hoped-for, but not yet seen.”
Westerholm also notes that this hymn’s emphasis on the Christian’s heavenward pilgrimage has been replaced in recent years by hymns and worship songs highlighting God’s immediate presence, in this world, in this life. He urges contemporary Christian hymn writers and worship leaders to retrieve the heavenly theme, without which Christians could face dismay amid life’s sorrows.
I concur with this plea for reviving our heavenly hope, not only in hymns but in every aspect of Christian life and thought. Though we know God’s presence and catch glimpses of His glory in our midst even today, it pales in comparison with what we’ll know and see in heaven. As Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “In our Christian pilgrimage it is well, for the most part, to be looking forward. Forward lies the crown, and onward is the goal.”
We live now as “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13), pilgrims seeking a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
All the more, we seek not only a “land that is fairer than day,” but also a sight more precious than the Shroud of Turin, with its purported image of the crucified Christ. For, though we haven’t yet seen our Lord, we love Him (1 Peter 1:7-8), and in this hope we press forward in our journey: “… when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Seeing Jesus is the greatest treasure of heaven, the ultimate goal of our spiritual pilgrimage. Anne Cousin’s 1857 hymn of heaven says it well: “I will not gaze at glory, // but on my King of grace; // not at the crown He giveth, // but on His piercèd hand; // the Lamb is all the glory // of Emmanuel’s land.”