Our Pilgrimage Through Lent

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A historian weighs in on how the medieval tradition can shape the days leading up to Easter.

One of my pet peeves is receiving an email during the latter part of Lent with the sign-off “Happy Easter!” or “Jesus is risen!” I have to fight the temptation to reply, “Not just yet!” Such proclamations, although well meaning, rush me to a destination I’m not ready to reach. Before I experience the joy of Easter morning, a lengthy journey awaits.

Each year during Lent, I point my spiritual feet to Jerusalem, preparing to walk my way to the cross and the empty tomb. The path is difficult and long, leading through the hills and valleys of prayer, personal reckoning, and repentance. But it is necessary—each step I take readies my heart for resurrection.

As a historian, I find guides for Lent in Christians who, in ages past, matched their spiritual journeys with physical ones. In the medieval era, for example, pilgrims regularly traveled to Jerusalem to replicate the last earthly days of Jesus. Jerusalem pilgrimage became a tradition as early as the fourth century when Emperor Constantine (“the Great”) erected a basilica over what was reported to be the newly discovered site of the Crucifixion.

Completed in 335, this basilica, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, soon drew the world’s faithful. In addition to Calvary Chapel, the church enclosed Christ’s sepulcher, or tomb. To worship at these sites from Jesus’ life, many Christians committed to a long and arduous journey to reach Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims going to Jerusalem from northern Europe and England walked an astounding distance of 3,000 miles (on average). The most common route took pilgrims to the foot of the Alps, over the mountains, and then to Venice, where ships ferried …

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