“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:54-58, NIV).
As we move into the month of November, I find myself returning again to the background of the Thanksgiving holiday we will celebrate. Each time I consider our annual celebration, I am amazed at the conviction and resolve displayed by those settlers at Plymouth, known as the Pilgrims, with whom our Thanksgiving traditions are inevitably intertwined. Let us be clear about the stark differences between their Thanksgiving and ours. The Pilgrims did not look forward to an established holiday with a prepared feast, protection from the elements in modern homes, and anticipation of football games on big screen, high-definition televisions.
In their first winter in the harsh land, nearly half of the original 102 Mayflower passengers died. Imagine the magnitude of this historical fact. A small community where everyone was known by everyone else. Among those who perished, then, were close friends, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, and children. Imagine the grief, and then imagine the limited amount of time to grieve for there was much work to be done to support those who survived. How did they cope? The most straightforward answer I can find is that they lived the faith they professed. Christianity was not an abstract philosophy; it was reality. It was life.
There are many who picture the Pilgrims as stern, harsh, unyielding people with no humor. That is an uncharacteristic and unfair image. They were human beings. They sought protection from pain and hardship. They knew sorrow and joy. And they knew the source of their joy.
In 1 Corinthians 15. Paul declares plainly and bluntly that death has been overcome. In Christ, death yields to victory. In spite of their human weaknesses, the Pilgrims believed these verses and lived these verses. This Scriptural testimony was as real to them as any in the Old Testament describing God’s blessings poured out on the Israelites. Death, therefore, did not have the final say in their lives; however, the Word of God did. As a result, they persevered through some of the harshest conditions we can possibly imagine. They persevered not with resignation, but with the assurance that their labor in the Lord was not in vain.
With such an assurance, they gave humble thanks to the Lord who conquered death. In November 1623, William Bradford, Governor of the colony, issued an official proclamation that included this summons: “Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house… there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”
Even though our celebration traditions have changed over the centuries, may we never forget the original reason behind Thanksgiving Day. “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”