Pilgrimage as an Altar

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Ian Clark

Altars take many forms. In the church where I grew up, as well as the church I currently serve, the altar is a simple wooden table. In some churches, they are more ornate, perhaps made of marble. I have seen the tailgate of a truck turned into an altar; during our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I saw a simple bench turned into one as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Whatever form they take, altars are rich in significance. They are tables around which we gather as Christian community; the place where we seek spiritual nourishment for the journey of faith. And they are the tables to which we bring our offerings; the place where we return to God a portion of what God has given to us.

(Greg Klimovitz)

In this, the altar seems like something of an allegory for the core of Christianity. In the altar there is a tension, for the altar is a place of both giving and receiving. In the altar we are reminded at once of the gifts we receive and the responsibilities we have. In some ways, the altar represents all that we do in worship and all that we strive for outside of worship.

If the altar is a place of sacred tension, so too was our experience of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

My soul was fed as I walked where my Lord walked. To breathe the same air and witness the same sunsets as Christ did, I found myself moved closer to my faith in a more intimate way. In gazing upon the same seas and mountains that Jesus looked upon, and in feeling the same dizzying heat that he felt, I found myself experiencing him anew. Scripture came alive and I began to better imagine the ministry of Christ.

And, yet, for all of the spiritual nourishment that was provided, I was also deeply reminded of what I owe in return. Looking upon cities divided by concrete walls, walking through refugee camps, and hearing the stories of families living in fear, I was reminded that God’s love made known in Christ carries with it a responsibility for the believer: Christians, nourished by God’s goodness, are to seek a world which better reflects God’s vision of wholeness and justice, mercy, and compassion.

And, so, I see my pilgrimage to the Holy Land as something of an altar. I went to be fed, and I was. I went for community, and I received it. I also experienced this altar’s sacrificial call: the call to give of myself for the building of God’s kingdom. The call to escape my own comfort so others might taste freedom and experience the fullness of God’s call on their life.

So, next time I stand behind an altar of wood or stone to offer the words, “this is my body, broken for you,” I dare say it will take on a new meaning for me. Christ’s body is, indeed, broken for me: broken so that I might be fed – and broken so that I might respond in a way that heals.

Ian Clark is a pastoral resident at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His ministry focuses on the care and development of young adults, as well as Christian education. He is a 2018 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and is an officer in the United States Navy’s Chaplain Candidate Program. He is married to Kaitlin, a critical care nurse, and together they enjoy hiking, camping, and cooking.

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