I derived very great pleasure recently when I was invited to share my thoughts on “Pilgrimage”, by the Akwa Ibom State Pilgrims Board; at a seminar organized to prepare intended Akwa Ibom State Pilgrims for the 2013 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Here is what I told them:
What is a Pilgrimage? It is a transformative journey to a sacred place that has a spiritual significance. It should ultimately help you to know God better, and it adds to your spiritual experience. You are expected to return refreshed, renewed and transformed. Pilgrimage is good especially for those of you, whose everyday responsibilities distract you from devotion to God, and it helps to bring you in closer communion with Him. It is not intended to be a rest and recreation jamboree, but rather, it is intended to challenge your everyday life.
As a Pilgrim, your experience can be either deeply meaningful or completely meaningless. Extra grace is given to you if you open your heart to God. You are an ambassador of Christ, as a Pilgrim; and as a foreign visitor, you are an ambassador of Akwa Ibom State, and indeed Nigeria. You should open your heart to learn from the experience you will get and allow God to touch you personally as you make the trip to the Holy Land visiting the different sites on your schedule.
Pilgrimage predates Christ. Jews journeyed to Jerusalem even before the time of King David. Psalms 120-134, known as Psalms of Ascent, were songs sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. With the birth of Christ, Christians have since gone to walk where Jesus walked, where pilgrimages are made to sites connected with Christ’s Ministry. Such walks involve visits to sites connected with His birth, life, crucifixion, death and resurrection.
A characteristic feature of the pilgrimage is a journey away from the comfort of the pilgrim’s home, sometimes covering hundreds of miles. Along such journeys are sacrifices, suffering, hunger, pain, exhaustion, extreme weather conditions, huge crowds, etc. Such a trip involves quietude and a lot of contemplation. That is why you have to travel all the way to Israel, Egypt and perhaps Rome. While you are there, you will do a lot of trekking from one site to another, so, you are advised to carry comfortable walking shoes and boots.
Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, contributed greatly to the rebuilding of the sites after they were almost lost for sometime due to wars and neglect, after such a pilgrimage. The Crusaders carried out Crusades in the 12th and 13th Centuries involving armed campaigns launched against the Muslims who occupied Jerusalem. And over the years, the different sites have been maintained by different denominations, and they are fairly well preserved.
Every year, Akwa Ibom State joins other contingents from the rest of Nigeria to embark on the Christian Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I went in the 2007 team, and we were just about 268 Pilgrims, and since then, the number has increased steadily, up to 1,500 in 2013.
Permit me to share some of my thoughts and the experience I had while I visited the Holy Land. Before I went on the trip, I was privileged to hear a testimony that guided me in a certain direction right from home. A sister, Mrs. Ekom Udofia, told me that she received the mantle for a great youth’s ministry, the Seed Royal Squad, when she went on Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And so, I too went, expecting to receive something from the Lord, even though initially I didn’t know what it would be.
I have often been intrigued that God revealed Himself to man in very concrete terms in a small geographical area called Israel. And it is in Israel that we have both the history and geography of Salvation. Jesus Christ is the most outstanding Son of Israel. So, it is that area that Jesus lived, where He worked, impacted, and from where the world has been touched that is called the Holy Land. It is the Land of the Prophets and the Land of Jesus.
So, as I worked the Holy Land with Jesus, I was inspired by the view of the Holy Sites, to rejoice with the Psalmists, at God’s Majesty and Excellence. I sought to follow the Good Shepherd from Bethlehem, where He was born, through His carpentry work in Nazareth, as the Rabbi in Capernaum, the Saviour at Golgotha and His Ascension on Mount Olives.
I thought of the Psalms, which have always intrigued me. These are Songs, Prayers, Praise, Lamentations, Prophesies to and from God through His real children. They depict a wonderful interaction between our God and the very creative minds that wrote them. We have a collection of 150 written over 1000 years by different people in the Bible: Moses (Psalms 90 & 91), David (over 70 Psalms), Solomon (Psalms 72 & 127), Asaph (Psalms 50, 73-83), Ethan (Psalm 89) and the Sons of Koran (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 77). I thought of these great creative minds that God used to provide us with the records in the Bible of His Mighty Works and how these people walked with Him.
We visited many sites, like: Mount Carmel – site for the Elijah’s famous challenge of the baal prophets, Mount Tabor – site for the transfiguration, the Jordan - site for the baptism of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee – site for Jesus’ early Ministry, The Dead Sea/Qumran - the Dead Sea Schrolls, Mount Sinai (Egypt), St Catherina and the Burning Bush (Egypt), Nuweiba (the place of the Crossing in Egypt).
Then we went up to Jerusalem, driving through the hills and the beautiful ranges. I felt the excitement David felt when he was reminded to go to the House of the Lord, as he reached the gates of Jerusalem (Psalm 122). I remembered the different names Jerusalem had been given: The Sacred City, The Golden City, The City of Peace, The City of David. Even Jehovah gave it a name and called it Zion! I remembered the Pilgrims’ Songs in Psalms 120-134, which were supposed to be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, we visited many sites like: the Wailing (Western) Wall, the Via Dolorosa (the Stations of the Cross), the Garden Tomb and Bethlehem, etc.
As we went round these Sites, we retraced Jesus’ steps, we thought about Him, reliving and reconstructing the kind of life of life He must have lived. I was personally touched in a special way in all the sites we visited, especially the Nativity Grotto and the Garden Tomb, i.e. the places of birth, death and resurrection.
These sites have references in the Bible. The Garden Tomb owned by the Garden Association of London, is the Crucifixion site. The features in the Garden fitted the details of the Crucifixion given in the Gospels like John 19:17, 41, 42. There was a similitude of a ‘skull’, with the outline of a nose and a pair of eye sockets on one part of the hill, beside the garden. There was also an empty tomb, hewn on the hill, which suited the picture of Golgotha. As we entered the Garden, there was this serene atmosphere that we all felt. It was very green and peaceful. We entered the grave in fives and came out rejuvenated with the risen Christ! It was an awesome feeling, especially after a praise and worship session in the Garden.
Another very significant site for me was the birth place of Jesus: Bethlehem. This was also the town where David was born. More importantly, it was the town where Jesus Himself was born in a manger. A huge church had been built over it - the Basilica of the Nativity. One of the guides had told us that people brought the things they bought in town to the Grotto for consecration, for it was a very Holy Place. We queued up with people from all over the world, to see the Nativity Grotto. As we moved along in the queue, I thought of the Magi from the East, and their gifts to the Lord. I remembered the Shepherds from the fields, who also went to see the Lord, and thereafter went forth to evangelise. We filed through the Nativity Grotto, and as I left the Nativity Grotto, I resolved to join the angelic hosts, and the hosts of pilgrims since the Magi from the East and the Shepherds; to spread the Word and further the Kingdom Project. That was where and when the Lord gave me the title of my book: The Ibom Pilgrim, for the Ibom Team had joined to retrace the footsteps of our Lord, and there should be a record of it.
Therefore, along with other Pilgrims from Akwa Ibom State, especially the 2007 contingent, I join the Magi from the East, the Shepherds from the fields, the Angels from Heaven and other Pilgrims over the years from all over the world, to announce JOY to the world, for our King was born in Bethlehem. And I have not been the same since I stepped out of that Grotto where He was born!
As a Christian you need to visit the Holy Land, where our Lord was born, grew up, preached the Gospel, died, rose and ascended to Heaven. Such a visit can enhance the root of your faith in God. You need some resources to help you appreciate the pilgrimage. The book, The Ibom Pilgrim: Walking the Holy Land with Jesus, written in very simple narrative, and very well researched, can be of a great help to prepare you for such a visit to the Holy Land. It can convey to you a deeper appreciation of the sites before you get there and even after you have visited the sites. It can also help to widen your religious horizon and stretch your faith in your walk with Jesus, if you prayerfully read it attentively.
I believe strongly that you too can have an encounter with the Lord as you visit the Holy Land. Plan to if you did not think about it. Many have had, as I had too. Visiting the sites confirmed my faith in Biblical Record. But remember that facts alone do not produce faith. For the book of Hebrews says that:
To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. It was by their faith that people of ancient times won God's approval. It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God's Word, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen (Heb. 11:1-3, GNB).
As you do, consciously allow the facts that you will see to stretch your faith in such a manner that the whole pilgrimage exercise will enrich your life for Kingdom impact, especially when you come back.