A Faith-Changing Vacation

Spring is well under way, and soon summer will be here – Vacation time!  Some of my favorite vacations have been visiting historic places, especially places associated with Christian history.  Seeing the church in Wittenberg where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door, symbolically beginning the Reformation, somehow makes the event more real.  Visiting Bedfordshire and exploring scenes familiar to John Bunyan, one can easily see where Bunyan derived some of the images for his Pilgrim’s Progress.  Sitting in the pews of St. John’s Church, Richmond, it’s easy to imagine the cold day in 1775, when Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Liberty or Death” speech, filled with biblical references.  But the most fascinating journey is one to the places where biblical events actually occurred.  In the early days of Christianity, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became popular, and women were among the earliest pilgrims.[1]

One pilgrim named Egeria travelled from Spain throughout the Holy Land in 381-384 and kept a journal of her travels. Little is known about Egeria, but she apparently was a lady of some wealth to be able to make such a journey.   Possibly she had some connections with the imperial court of Emperor Theodosius the Great, who was from Spain.  Perhaps she was a nun writing for nuns back in Spain.

The beginning and ending of Egeria’s journal have not survived, but the middle portion is rich with descriptions of her travels and experiences from Mt. Sinai through her long stay in Jerusalem.[2] In her travels, Egeria wanted to visit places where biblical events occurred and to deepen her understanding of the Scriptures.  Everywhere she went she sought out religious leaders and local guides who could show her the sites, and then she read the scriptures focusing on those sites.  Always she was eager to see the places as they were from the scripture’s viewpoint.  She wanted to see where the glory of God was shown, and she climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai.  Monks showed her where the golden calf had stood, as well as the burning bush – whose roots they claimed were still there! Egeria visited Mt. Nebo, where Moses is buried. In Haran she was shown what was purported to be Job’s tomb and Abraham’s house.  Roman soldiers provided safe escort for Egeria during some of her travels, and religious leaders often provided hospitality.

The most interesting section of Egeria’s journal is her detailed account of the worship practices of the Jerusalem Christians.   Six churches in Jerusalem were associated with specific events in the life of Christ.  Daily and weekly services at each church focused on the event particular for each site, but a special series of celebrations were practiced throughout the developing liturgical year.  Egeria described in detail the celebration of holy week – the Scriptures read, the vigils, fasts, the processions.  She found the Good Friday service most meaningful with Scripture read the entire time and hymns sung.  From the Scriptures, the people learned that everything prophesied about Jesus’ suffering and death was fulfilled.  All were moved to tears to hear of the Lord’s suffering for them.  Egeria found a greater emphasis on the preaching of the Scriptures in Jerusalem than she found at home in Spain.  People coming to Jerusalem learned about the Scriptures connected with the various feasts of the Church and brought their renewed understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian year back to their home churches.  At a time when few people had a copy of the Scriptures for themselves, the liturgy of the church in Jerusalem increased their understanding of the Scriptures and their faith.

Egeria’s descriptions are so accurate and detailed that archaeologists have used her journal to plan their work.  Archaeologists uncovered Peter’s house in Capernaum in part from Egeria’s description that his house near the synagogue in Capernaum was made into a church. Behind everything Egeria did on her journey was a spiritual purpose – to verify and confirm her faith in the truth of Scripture through contact with the physical places the Bible had recorded God had particularly worked.  Much of the Bible is the outworking of God’s plan of redemption in history, and Egeria’s travels reflect the truth that Christianity is a faith rooted and grounded in history, in place and time.

Our God is intimately involved in the affairs of this world. And all history, including our present time, is under His care.

Speaking to the Athenians on Mars Hill, Paul declared that the very boundaries and times of the nations are arranged to bring people to Him (Acts 17: 26-27).  But not only the great history of nations, but our own personal lives are under His care.  This is the importance of that favorite verse in Romans 8:28, “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Historic places and people like Egeria can deepen our understanding and appreciation for the wondrous works of God in our daily affairs and deepen our trust in His future work in our lives and among the nations.

Dr. Diana Severance is the Director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University and the author of Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History (Christian Focus, 2011).  She has taught courses in the history of Christian women at SWBTS since 2004. Her greatest joy, besides the Lord Jesus, is being married to Gordon.

[1] This summary of the pilgrimages of Helena and Egeria is adapted from Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History.  Christian Focus, 2011, 67-70.

[2] SPCK’s 1919 of The Pilgrimage of Etheria [sic] can be found at http://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm