Santiago de Compostela is a place that is all about arriving. When I came here for the first time three years ago, I learnt, to my surprise, just how many pilgrims arrive every day at the Pilgrim Office. There has to be a well-oiled machine in place to make sure that all these pilgrims, many of whom have walked hundreds of miles to get here, are well received and looked after.
As soon as we had arrived at our hotel, I made my way up the hill to the old centre of the city. I’m here with a group of Friends of Southwark Cathedral and the hotel that we are staying in is just a short walk from the ancient streets that lead to the Cathedral. But I was drawn up there, not as a sightseer but because that is the right thing to do. There is the feeling that you have when you arrive here that you haven’t really arrived until you go to the one spot which is the centre and the aim of your travelling.
It was late afternoon but the square in front of the Cathedral was still full of people, many of them sitting on the paving, exhausted but joyful people, enjoying the view of the destination, the twin towers and the magnificent staircase that form the west front of this huge cathedral. Restoration work is underway on the south tower and the great west doors are closed, so the pilgrim has to go back round the cathedral to the north transept in order to get into the church.
Entering this sacred place is always such a joy. In fact, whilst it is a large building it isn’t huge and there is a strangely homely and welcoming feeling. I don’t think it’s just because I have been here a few times now. There is something almost embracing about the place. And that is as it should be because what each arriver wants is to embrace.
I got into the very short queue that was making its way up the stairs that get you to the place behind the image of St James where you are able to do what all pilgrims do, embrace the apostle. It’s a rather strange but very moving experience. You are behind this golden, bejewelled figure and you open your arms wide and hug the apostle. Then you make your way down the steps that lead away. You have arrived.
I thought about the wonderful story that Jesus tells about an arrival. We know the story as the ‘Prodigal Son’ but it can be given so many names – the Forgiving Father, the Unforgiving Brother – it all depends what you want to emphasise. But what came to mind for me, this afternoon, in this northern Spanish, Gallician place of arrival was the embrace.
St Luke tells us the story, of the boy taking his inheritance, leaving, wasting it all, coming to his senses and heading back home. But the verse that speaks of his arrival is so moving.
‘While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15.20)
Embracing the apostle is symbolic of this sense of arrival and also symbolic of the embrace that God gives to his children, so often, returning children. There is of course a Holy Door at the Cathedral, a door for the Year of Mercy. After visiting the apostle, I went out and back in through that Holy Door. It was a reminder of the mercy of God, the God who embraces the one who arrives, the God who always shows mercy. To be honest I think that moment of embrace meant more this time than it did before – why I don’t know. Perhaps we all grow in our knowledge that we need to be embraced, just as that boy did, just as the arrivers at this Holy place do. And for those who have no one to physically embrace them today may the loving arms of God surround them.
God of the embrace, hold us close today, surround us with your love. Amen.