The Traditional Christian Understanding of Pilgrimage
There is a traditional definition of pilgrimage that states:
Pilgrimages: Generally, journeys to holy places undertaken from motives of devotion in order to obtain supernatural help or as acts of penance or thanksgiving.
These journeys were, and continue to be, a common feature of religious devotion and are unconfined to any particular religious tradition, period of time, or group of people. The traditional goal of pilgrimage may often be a visit to a particular shrine or place connected with an apparition of the deity, or other extraordinary event, where the pilgrims may bring sacrificial offerings for petition, healing or thanksgiving.
In order to understand better the tradition of Christian pilgrimage we need to trace its antecedents to the Old Testament. David elevated Jerusalem to its place of central importance as a religious and political centre around 1000BC. Following the completion of the Temple under Solomon, people would travel there to celebrate the feasts, bring their offerings, and offer sacrifice to God. Jewish law required that pilgrimage to Jerusalem be undertaken three times per year: at the Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths, however, not all males would have been able to fulfil this legislation. Those who travelled to Jerusalem would go in groups, expressing their joy in the singing of psalms and songs (Pss. 24, 84, 118, 120-134).
After the destruction of the Temple and until the present time, Jews continued to make pilgrimages to the West Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known as the ‘Wailing Wall’, where they lament the loss of the Temple and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. The emperor Hadrian, who otherwise banned Jews from residing in, or visiting Aelia Capitolina, allowed them in for this purpose on a single day of the year, which had the inadvertent result of maintaining the ancient Jewish tradition of coming together on a specific occasion.
It is interesting to note that the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church finishes its definition of pilgrim by stating:
The word for pilgrim (peregrinus) meant a ‘resident alien’, and the notion that Christians were strangers and pilgrims on earth, whose true citizenship was in heaven is one firmly rooted in the New Testament. In accordance with this ideal, pilgrimage could be seen essentially, not as a journey to a particular place, but as exile from one’s native land voluntarily undertaken as a form of asceticism, in imitation especially of Abraham who in obedience to God left his native land (Gen. 12:1). Such an understanding of pilgrimage reached its full development among Irish monks in the sixth and following centuries.
The New Testament portrays the Christian life as a journey towards the Heavenly City (Heb. 11:13-16; Pet. 1:17, 2:11), and we know that there were already some Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land around 100AD, however, it was to be another two hundred years, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, before they became prevalent.
It was Macarius of Jerusalem who successfully persuaded Constantine of the merits of building a great basilica at the Holy Sepulchre site, and his mother, Helena, was sent to the east to implement this, and perhaps the very learned Eusebius of Caesarea may have also encouraged her to think about other holy sites (Bethlehem and Olivet)? Helena helped popularise pilgrimage to the Holy Land by locating places associated with the life of Christ, and so began the era of building shrines and churches that would become the focus of pilgrimage until the post-modern era. Those places associated by tradition with the Apostles, saints and martyrs were located in the local Christian communities, and by the beginning of the fifth century pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome, and Constantinople were becoming an accepted part of Christian devotion.
 F.L. Cross, & E.A. Livingstone, (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edn, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.1288.
 P.J. Achtemeier, (gen ed), Harpers Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1985). p. 798.
 Cross & Livingstone, Dictionary of Christian Church, p.1288.
 E.D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD312-460
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).