We’ve all heard the stories about the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts and how they were woefully unprepared for the cruelty of that first winter. We’ve seen countless grade school pageants with black-hatted and badly dressed Pilgrims and feather-adorned Indians acting out for us the events of that first Thanksgiving, when foods were brought by all to be shared by all. In the familiarity of the narrative, there are some insights that might go overlooked.
Of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower when it left England, only 52 made it to the table on that Thanksgiving Day the following year. A stark visual illustrates where the toll was especially harsh on some families.
What kind of otherworldly strength does it take to gather with others—some who have not suffered as much loss, some more—and still partake in a celebration of Gratitude to God?
It takes an otherworldly view of this life, an understanding that this is not all there is. They were on a pilgrimage to another land, one beyond this temporal earthly turf which had finally started to yield to them. They were on the journey to a celestial city. For “they desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16), one where, even “if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (1 Corinthians 5:1)
Like them, we are passing through, and when our saved loved ones, fellow travelers to God’s better country, are lost to disease or disaster or age, like those lost in that first brutal winter, we know they have continued on the journey and will meet us in the celestial city. The Pilgrims were able to raise voices in thanks to God because His promises to save to the uttermost—beyond death itself!—are sure.
By God’s grace those who survived were able to be content, whether they remained in their improved circumstances or not, because nothing could happen to them, not a hair could be disturbed on their heads, were it not decreed so by God. “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” (1 Timothy 6:6) They might again have failed crops, or face hostility from the indigenous peoples, or suffer from illnesses, or they might prosper. God doesn’t change, nor do his promises, and for people who find their security and contentment in him and not in the circumstances of this life, neither do they fear what the next day might bring—another reason to raise voices in gratitude and praise!
As we proceed into the next season of the calendar often characterized by frenzied pursuit of security and satisfaction, let us remember that nothing has changed from Thanksgiving Day to today. The turkey roasting paraphernalia may have been washed and put away, and the twinkling lights and shiny baubles have been retrieved from storage. The orange and brown decor overtaken by green and red, and our to do lists have grown with obligations. We are still the same pilgrims passing through this earthly country as we were before, still holding fast to “the eternal life to which we have been called and about which we made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:12)
With all the world setting aside this month to prepare for a single day of celebration and festivities, whether they wish to attribute the origins of the holiday to Christ or not, there are many opportunities to confess the good news of the Savior’s birth. Despite attempts to trivialize the day and secularize the Christmas message, carols are still sung to the glory of the newborn King, church bells still ring out in glad celebration, and the name of Jesus is written and spoken with every traditional greeting of “Merry Christmas!”
As long as we draw breath in this life, we pilgrims have much to be thankful for, beginning with the birth of our Savior; we can make merry and spread good cheer, making good our confession in heralding the glad tidings of his coming and his coming again, gathering other strangers and exiles in this quest for a homeland.
Lord, remind me of the frailty of this life and draw my gaze to the eternal glory that awaits me in the celestial city; keep my eyes open to opportunities to invite others to join in the pilgrimage to the King’s country.