Lection from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 2: Isaiah 40.1-11
When I returned home from my Thanksgiving holiday, I found the latest copy of Selvedge waiting for me. Published in England, Selvedge is a wondrous magazine devoted to textiles from around the world. Though I don’t do a lot with textiles (in my artwork, I mean; I do make good use of them, for instance, as a wearer of clothes), this magazine has become a source of enchantment and inspiration.
Savoring my way through the pages of the newly arrived issue, I lighted on a picture of a garment that immediately seized my imagination. The caption identified it as a Japanese pilgrim’s coat from the early twentieth century. Painted with Buddhist mantras in flowing Japanese calligraphy, a simple coat such as this would have been worn by a person as they traveled from temple to temple on their spiritual journey. Each temple had its own stamp, and a typical pilgrim’s coat is laden with vivid cinnabar imprints gathered from the temples. The coat of a pilgrim who had been traveling for some time would have looked something like a cross between a passport and prayerbook, with the cinnabar stamps and calligraphic mantras mingling together to enfold the wearer.
A web search for “pilgrims’ coats” turned up the intriguing Sri Threads site, which specializes in antique textiles and has a section devoted to what they describe as “Buddhist Pilgrim’s Accoutrements.” In describing the pilgrims’ coats, the folks at Sri comment that the temples that the pilgrims visit “are situated on a single holy mountain, and getting on foot from temple to shrine to temple is an act of faith and bravery. These pilgrims’ coats,” they go on to observe, “are an outward manifestation of the faith of the wearer, who endured much hardship and showed much fortitude in pursuit of perfecting his faith.”
With my love of fabric and calligraphy and tales of pilgrimage, I could hardly fail to be seized by the imagery of these artful, sacred garments. So my imagination and I got busy and headed into the studio, taking along this wondering:
What would an Advent pilgrim’s coat look like?
As I pondered this in my studio, I found myself thinking of this Sunday’s lection from Isaiah, the passage from which the gospel writers draw in describing John the Baptist. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” the text begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…” The writer of Isaiah 40 goes on to describe a voice that cries out,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Writing to a people in exile, this author promises a pathway that will lead to redemption and return. The transformation of creation that he describes with such vivid imagery will envelop the people as well: within the community, within the individual, the interior landscape will change utterly, and through it will appear a road for the God who will come to redeem and restore.
It is a passage about wilderness, about making a sacred way, about transformation that happens within and without. These are classic images of pilgrimage, that sacred journey in which we become more than tourists, more than bodies merely moving through a landscape. The ancient practice of pilgrimage beckons us to find the places of connection between the terrain we carry inside us and the landscape beyond us, whether it’s the landscape of the natural world, or of a story, or of a season. Pilgrimage calls us to give ourselves to a terrain that we may find foreign and unsettling, and to open ourselves to the sacred and surprising places that it holds. Altered by our engagement with those places, we are able to reenter the familiar terrain of our lives and to see it with different and deeper vision.
So, there at my drafting table, I made myself a pilgrim’s coat for the season of Advent. In it I embedded a portion of the passage from Isaiah, taking his wilderness words as a blessing, a prayer for this Advent journey. Pondering this image, I wonder what sacred places God has in store for me on this Advent path, and whether I’ll be open to seeing them, and how they will change me.
What kind of pilgrimage might the season of Advent invite you to? What would your pilgrim’s coat look like? What prayers would you paint upon it, to bless you on your way? What are the names of the temples, the holy places—within or without—that you long to visit in this season, and what kind of imprint would they leave on your coat; how would they mark you? How open are you to the surprises that God might have in store on your Advent path? In whose company will you travel?
I’m happy to share my pilgrim’s coat with you, till you find or fashion one of your own. With gratitude for sharing the path, I pray for blessings and traveling mercies on your way.