A lot of images come to mind when we think of Thanksgiving: pumpkins, horns of plenty, stuffed turkeys, even stuffed relatives drowsing on the couch watching football. But when we picture Thanksgiving we also think of buckled hats and buckled shoes, blunderbuses, John Alden and Miles Standish, and the Mayflower. We associate the holiday with the colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the group known as “Pilgrims”.

             About 100 Englishmen and women journeyed to the New World in 1620. Half of them were religious dissenters who found the Church of England “too Catholic” (I suspect they wouldn’t be real impressed with Lutheranism, either). They were seeking religious freedom. The other half of the group was looking for opportunity, adventure and a new start in life. They originally landed at Provincetown at the end of Cape Cod, then moved on to Plymouth. (I was in Provincetown for Halloween during a pastor’s conference many years ago. My car got egged repeatedly, and I thought, somewhat irrationally, “No wonder the Pilgrims didn’t stay here!”)

               During their first winter in the New World, about half the colonists died. Then they encountered a friendly English-speaking Indian named Squanto, who gave them some lessons in farming the land. When harvest time came, they had a meal together with the Indians to give thanks to God. The menu for this first Thanksgiving included lobster–which to my mind beats the heck out of turkey, and doesn’t put you to sleep with tryptophan! (It’s interesting to note that one reason for the colony’s early woes is that they experimented with communism. Their life together was similar to a Soviet collective farm, with all the land being held in common and no one owning individual property. The harvest was very poor until they switched to private land ownership–then productivity skyrocketed).

             Why do we call them “Pilgrims”? Because they undertook a journey into a strange land for spiritual reasons. It’s the same reason John Wayne keeps calling Jimmy Stewart “pilgrim” in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance–Stewart the attorney had journeyed from the East to bring law to the frontier. A pilgrim is someone who travels with some sort of spiritual or idealistic purpose in mind.

             Today, the classic religious pilgrimage is in Islam–millions of Muslims travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to visit the sacred black stone, the Kaaba. . Many people make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, seeking God’s healing. Certainly the Holy Land, and the sites where Jesus walked, are a classic place of pilgrimage. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s characters are on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. A pilgrimage doesn’t have to be explicitly religious either: baseball fans go on pilgrimage to Cooperstown, Elvis fans to Graceland. (I myself have undertaken pilgrimages to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo for wings, and to Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia for cheesesteaks!) A pilgrim is one who journeys with a very special goal in mind.

             By the way, I have long been intrigued by Pilgrim State Hospital. Besides being the creepiest place on Long Island, with its hundreds of abandoned buildings, it also has an interesting name. Why “pilgrim”? Was it because the patients were on a journey toward healing and renewal? Nothing so exalted–it was named after a state mental health commissioner called Charles S. Pilgrim! (Beautiful name, anyway).

             We all are pilgrims. We all are on a special journey. The destination for our journey isn’t Lourdes or Mecca or the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. Our destination is heaven. We haven’t arrived there yet, of course. We’re still on the road. Scripture says that people of faith are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, I Peter 2:11). “They desire a better, a heavenly country,” Scripture says of such pilgrims. (Hebrews 11:16).  The Bible goes on toe say that “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek that city that is to come” (Hebrews 13).

             “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home,” declares the very last hymn in our hymnal. “What though the tempest rage, heaven is my home. Short is my pilgrimage, heaven is my home...” We often hear that life is a journey–and that’s true. But it’s a specific kind of journey. A pilgrimage. We are on our way to a holy place. Our life’s journey is not meandering, not aimless wandering. We are heading toward a place of joy and peace.

             The only reason we can make this journey is because Jesus Christ made a journey. He came down from heaven and became human for us. He made a “reverse” pilgrimage, as it were–left the Holy Place in heaven and came into this sinful world. And ultimately He journeyed to the Holy Cross to offer a complete and perfect sacrifice for our sins. Then He rose again and ascended into heaven. And now He leads us in our pilgrimage heavenward. Without Him, our lives would have no destination. They would be aimless wandering into darkness. It is Christ who makes life a pilgrimage.

             Pilgrims need provisions for their journey. And Jesus gives us the most wonderful provisions of all–His body and blood in Holy Communion. And pilgrims often travel together. In our pilgrimage, we have the companionship of fellow Christians. The Plymouth experiment of shared property failed, but we rejoice to hold in common with one another our faith and our life in Jesus. The companionship of brothers and sisters in Christ brings an added joy to the pilgrimage.

Enjoy your turkey this Thanksgiving (and in imitation of the Plymouth colonists sneak in a lobster or two if you can!) And before the tryptophan carries you off to dreamland, think about Pilgrims–people who are on a special spiritual journey. And remember: because of Jesus Christ, your life is a pilgrimage, and your destination is glory and splendour.

             God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 83 - No. 11