Highway of Holiness
The Christian life has often been described as a pilgrimage, most famously perhaps in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Before Christians were called Christians, they were called followers of The Way. It's a great tragedy that modern Christianity has lost some of this emphasis on process and journey. Whether defining the start of the faith as baptism or praying the sinner's prayer, these markers have become essentially tickets to heaven that imply that everything that follows is just gravy.
Similarly, when we look at Christ's life and only see His death and resurrection as being relevant to salvation, there are 30 years of journey and teachings that are dismissed as merely "optional" adages for us to follow. However, the process of salvation cannot be reduced to a single moment of time in the life of an individual Christian. As this excellent article says on the Theology of Work site, "Salvation is an ongoing process rather than a onetime event" (https://www.theologyofwork.org/new-testament/romans-and-work/the-gospel-of-salvationpauls-vocation-romans-11-17). As Paul says in II Corinthians 2:14-15: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." Salvation is indeed a process.
It is easy to find scriptural references describing salvation as a process rather than a one-time event, and for descriptions to include believers together in community. For example, we see reference to pilgrimage here in Isaiah 35, which describes the return of people to Zion as part of a Messianic pilgrimage. The NRSV titles this section, "The Return of the Redeemed to Zion," and it contains a section that inspired Handel so significantly that he included it in the Messiah oratorio:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer...
In Matthew 11, we see John the Baptist, trapped in the darkness of his prison, wondering whether Jesus was indeed ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus cites the blind receiving sight and the lame walking as evidence that He was indeed the Messiah.
Immediately following this section in Isaiah is the description of an amazing pilgrimage to Zion:
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Very few of us in modern times know what it means to really travel for worship. A 30-minute weekly car ride to a Sunday church service may seem like a sacrifice. However, there are three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/pilgrimage-festivals/): Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot). In Deuteronomy 16, God commands the Israelites to travel to Jerusalem three times a year for these lengthy festivals. We see Jesus' family traveling to one such festival in the events described in Luke 2, when he is accidentally left behind (helicopter parents, Mary and Joseph were not!). This was a significant journey for families in Nazareth, who were traveling from far north of Jerusalem.
In our heavily individualistic world, with our heavily individualistic spirituality, the idea of a communal pilgrimage may seem very foreign. Traveling together for the purpose of worship is not necessarily a familiar concept to many Christians today. However, since this is a Messianic passage in Isaiah 35, it is worth noting that the "Redeemed" are traveling together on a journey to Zion, much like a community-oriented "Pilgrims" Progress! Even those who aren't so strong spiritually and emotionally (the fools) are making it (although, not the unclean).
I am reminded of one of my favorite songs from the 1990s, Life is a Highway (https://youtu.be/U3sMjm9Eloo). I didn't know it at the time (I just really, really liked this song!), but singer Tom Cochrane was inspired by a trip to West Africa on behalf of World Vision famine relief. He felt mentally and spiritually exhausted after the trip and turned to song-writing as a pick-me-up. He recorded it within a single hour. Talking about the song, he said, "The irony is that it was the most positive song I'd ever written, coming out of a pretty heavy experience. I needed a pep talk, and it became that for me and for millions of others."
Talk of pilgrimage and journey is indeed a pep talk, as the opening lyrics of the song attest:
Life's like a road that you travel on. When there's one day here, and the next day gone. Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand. Sometimes you turn your back to the wind. There's a world outside every darkened door. Where blues won't haunt you anymore. Where the brave are free and lovers soar. Come ride with me to the distant shore.
I just had to include a highway image from one of my favorite places in the world, Monument Valley! If I were to picture a highway to heaven, this might be it! For those of us who are musicians, this highway journey would definitely involve Tom Cochrane-types with guitars slung on their backs, accompanied by others with various percussion instruments trekking down this highway together in one beautiful cacophony! This image is pretty consistent with what we see in Isaiah 35, as a community of believers makes its way down a desert highway that suddenly starts blooming and blossoming (see Isaiah 35:1-2), and they are singing all the way!
As I was meditating on Isaiah 35, I was on a family trip to Yosemite. Attempting a slightly more difficult hike than we typically did (a strenuous path with a 2,000-foot increase in elevation to see a spectacular waterfall), we frequently passed other travelers. The "pilgrims" going up sometimes asked those coming down how much further the journey would take and "was it worth it?" The "pilgrims" coming down were very happy to share their knowledge and experiences. Some turned back based on the information provided---one woman who learned from my daughter and me that she was only halfway, thanked us for letting her know and promptly turned back around. Others were encouraged to hear about how spectacular the falls were, and the information spurred them to more focused attention on their vertical travels. It was such a perfect image of a group of strangers traveling together with one common goal. How much better will that goal of the renewed Zion be! We are on pilgrimage together. Will we go singing all the way?