The cover story of National Geographic for March features “The Journey of the Apostles,” focusing on St. Thomas, St. Mark and St. Mary Magdalene.
However, it also offers a thumbnail sketch of the journeys of all the apostles, as detailed in the New Testament’s “Acts of the Apostles” and other early Christian literature. It makes the point that Mary Magdalene, “from whom Jesus cast out seven demons,” was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection, and the one who let the other followers know that Jesus was alive, despite having died on the cross. She found his formerly sealed tomb empty. However, it is only recently — comparatively speaking — that she has been referred to as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
According to the magazine, and many stories from contemporary sources, Mary Magadalene ended her life at Maximilien-Ste. Baume, in the Provence region of France, a long way from the Holy Land. People still come to her shrine there, especially women praying to have children. People travel great distances to see the relics of St. Mark in Venice, and to trace the footsteps of St. Thomas, the missionary to India, or the path that St. James followed on the Iberian peninsula, now known as Spain.
The journey as a metaphor for spiritual life predates Jesus, whose travels throughout the Holy Land are a huge part of his ministry. The beginnings of the Jewish nation have their roots in Abram’s departure from Ur to settle in Canaan. His ancestors, Adam and Eve, take a journey they might have preferred not to take when God evicts them from the Garden of Eden for disobeying him. The story of Abram’s wanderings to Egypt, his return to Canaan, his re-naming as Abraham, and the promise that God will make his descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky” continues with the journeys of those descendants. Father Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, leaves his home to seek a wife and to get away from his wrathful brother, whose birthright Jacob stole, and his descendants go to Egypt to seek food in a time of famine. The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is the story of those journeys.
The journey of those descendants, from slavery in Egypt to a new life in Canaan, which they name “Israel” in honor of their ancestor Jacob, forms the central story of the second book of the Bible, Exodus. That journey, led by Moses, a descendant of Jacob, provides the Hebrew people with a history that focuses on the journey.
In Israel, they continue to live in tents, and to worship in a tabernacle that is, essentially, a big fancy tent, for many years after they complete their 40-year journey to a new home. It is as if they are always ready to be on the move again. Their experience changes as they become less people who follow flocks from grassland to grassland, and more people who cultivate land, and need a permanent place to stay as they do so.
Even so, when they remember their history, they are asked to begin to tell their remembrance of their history by saying, “My ancestor (Abram) was a wandering Aramean…”
If we go back far enough, all of us have ancestors who were wanderers. John Gardner, the American novelist and teacher, said, “There are only two stories in the world: one is, ‘Someone goes on a journey,’ and the other is, ‘A stranger comes to town.’” The Bible and other great scriptures let us know that the journey made by the apostles was not unusual, but rather a part of the human story.
St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their home in you.” As the journey through Lent continues, the saint’s wisdom is worth remembering.
—The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.