In Yellowstone National Park there is a strip along one of the roads where one can pull off and park. Getting out of one’s car, one can look out across a beautiful meadowland that is bisected by a stream. A small crowd is usually gathered there. Many have cameras with huge barrel lenses. Often someone has set up a scope.
Sometimes when you stop here you will see a lot of activity. People will be staring through their binoculars, pointing, exclaiming. The cameras will be clicking away and a line will have formed at the scope. A Park ranger may be in attendance, answering questions.
What has everyone come out to see? One of the Yellowstone wolf packs makes its home near the meadow. Often they come out to play or rest in the sun near the stream. There might even be cubs.
A couple of years ago a small group of friends and I made a short journey by car north to the middle of Wyoming, to an old airfield that had been converted into a gigantic parking and observation area. We had snacks and special glasses, drinks, chairs and blankets. Sixty thousand people were with us there that day. It took us two hours to drive up and ten hours to get home afterward.
What had we gone out to see? That day, as the crowd around us cheered, we witnessed the total eclipse of the sun.
What do we go out into the wilderness to see? When we experience a special event, for what does it prepare us? Being baptized by John in the Jordan river was probably a deeply meaningful, even life-changing event — like the best of pilgrimages can be.
But Jesus seems to be saying that it is what happens next that is really the important stuff. John prepares the way. Repentance — putting your life into a new perspective, one that is God-driven — is a necessary first step. But it is only a first step.
Next comes the long slog. Living kingdom-of-heaven lives, where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” is the real important thing.
The work we each are called into, to bring the kingdom of God near, is not usually very splashy or even noteworthy. It is easily overlooked and discounted, even by us. So we fed a few hungry people, visited a few prisoners, or sat with somebody who was dying. So what?
But this is the important stuff, this everyday stuff. This is where real change happens.
May we return from all our pilgrimages, great and small, with a deepened sense of what our own particular work is in the service of Christ. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer, spiritual director and writer living in Ft. Collins, Colorado. To learn a little about her, go here.