Who Might We Become If We walk in the Steps of Christ?
Throughout history, people have journeyed to physical spots or destinations of spiritual significance to them. In pre-Christian times, pagan believers traveled to various cultic sites—for instance, the oracle at Delphi. Similarly, the Jewish people traveled to Jerusalem. This was the site of their temple, the privileged locus of the presence of their God. In establishing a covenant with the ancient Israelites, God commanded that they should come to Jerusalem three times a year to keep feast to Him. Every able-bodied Jew was to travel to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, the Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering, or what is now known as the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex 23:14). In the Gospel narrative from today, Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Unleavened bread is the bread of the desert. By the time of Jesus, this feast was associated with the journey of the ancient Israelites through the desert—the Passover event.
Passover refers to God’s “passing over” the houses of the Israelites when He took the first-born sons of the Egyptians the night before He delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Passover festival is the yearly remembrance of the journey out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the new land. To this day, every Jew remembers this event as if they, too, came out of Egypt with their ancestors.
For this pilgrimage (like so many others) it was not only the destination that was important, but the journey itself. Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt. They passed through the Sea of Reeds, escaping Pharaoh and his horsemen and chariots, and subsequently journeyed for forty years in the desert. Their journey was not without difficulty—they experienced trials and tribulations along the way. However, they were guided and protected by their God—by day, in the form of a cloud and at night, by a pillar of fire. The Lord cared and provided for them during their journey, supplying them with quail and manna to eat and making water come forth from the rock in order to drink. Although they doubted their God at times, they continued to follow in the footsteps of Moses. On Sinai, they were given the Decalogue—what we commonly call the Ten Commandments—to help guide their lives. After forty years, they were no longer a disparate group of various Hebrew tribes. They had been formed and shaped by their journey and had become a people. They were then led into the Promised Land.
The metaphor of Passover is often used to help us understand more fully our Christian baptism. Cyril of Jerusalem, a 4th-century bishop and writer, emphasizes that our baptism initiates us into a new life in Christ. This life requires that we not only renounce sin, but turn and follow Jesus. Cyril suggests that, just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, from the “tyranny of old” (which was his way of alluding to Pharaoh), Jesus Christ leads us out of the realm of sin and death. Through baptism, we are no longer captive to Satan, but free. As free persons, we begin a journey to the new land—what Christian hymnography calls the “new Jerusalem.” Our baptism is only the beginning of this journey. A life in Christ is a process of following in His footsteps.
What might it mean to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? We have the narrative of the Gospel to give us a glimpse. Today we celebrate the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. It is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as king and prophet, fulfilling the oracle of Zechariah (9.9): “Lo, your king comes to you; triumph and victorious is He, humble and riding on a donkey….” A crowd goes out to meet Him, singing, “Hosanna! (literally, Lord, save us!) Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” They had heard of his encounter with Lazarus and recognized Him as someone special. The procession is led by children, and one can imagine the crowd following behind Jesus as He passed them and made His way into Jerusalem. (Egeria, a 4th-century traveler to Jerusalem, witnesses to pilgrims in Jerusalem in the 4th century re-enacting this event. The bishop would lead the people from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem in a similar fashion, following in the steps of Christ.) From this entrance, we can see that following in the steps of Jesus can be an exhilarating experience, and yet we are reminded that doing so requires humility.
Furthermore, as the events of Holy Week will show, walking in His footsteps is not always easy. It means both joy and sorrow. In the life of Jesus, He experienced joy in the sharing of a festal meal with friends at the Last Supper, but sorrow at their betrayal, both large—the betrayal of Judas—and small(er)—Peter’s denial of Jesus after His arrest. In walking in the footsteps of Jesus we may also experience similar joys and sorrows, even betrayals. In the life of Jesus, He would ultimately run into trouble with the authorities, but also spoke truth to power during His trial before Pilate. Following in His footsteps may mean similar tribulations and opportunities for us. The witness of Jesus led to suffering and death on the Cross. For those who follow Him, it may also mean witnessing to and suffering for what we believe. In all the steps along His journey, Jesus prayed to the Father. The example of Jesus shows us that following in His footsteps means continuing this conversation.
Today the Church gives us an example of someone who walked in the steps of Christ to help guide our own journey. Walking in His footsteps encouraged St. Paul to minister to the Gentile world, but also landed him in prison. He shares his thoughts from there in today’s reading from Philippians (4:4–9):
Brothers and Sisters, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace with be with you.
He reminds the Philippian community (and us) of the proper frame of mind for our journey. Following in the footsteps of Jesus means that, even though we may experience sorrows along the way, we are the ones who are called to rejoice in the Lord always, because the Lord has the power to change our sorrow into hope. St. Paul encourages us to have forbearance. We are not to be filled with anxiety at the tribulations that come our way. We cannot change things by worrying about them, but we can change our attitude by thankful prayer. When we are thankful, our perspective changes. When we focus on the good things that God gives us, our hearts open. When we become grateful even for the trials that life presents, we are transfigured. Through our faith in and witness to Jesus Christ, we become a people—the People of God. We become people of joy in the raising of Lazarus and in the Resurrection of Christ. Similarly, we become people of hope in our own Resurrection on the Last Day. As we journey to the “new Jerusalem,” we become people of trust because we know that, just like the ancient Israelites, our God guides us and cares for us.
And we become people of thanksgiving because we know that, as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, this God of Peace will be with us always.
The author delivered this reflection as a sermon on Palm Sunday 2011 at the Greek Orthodox Mission of Ocala FL, now known as St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Belleview FL.
Teva Regule holds an MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and a PhD from Boston College. Her doctoral studies focused on liturgical theology and history.