Independent of Place

Have you ever visited the site of the Pilgrims landing: Plymouth Rock? We did when we first moved to Massachusetts. It seemed the appropriate thing to do—a way of paying homage to the place where it all began.
If you, too, have visited this icon of American history, you will understand when I say that it is probably the most underwhelming historical site you can imagine. The rock, enclosed in a kind of cage and surrounded by Greek columns, barely visible above the sand at the harbor. Like most people who were visiting at the time we were there, our first reaction was: “That’s it?”
More than this, there is no real historical evidence that the passengers and crew of the Mayflower ever set foot on the rock. They first disembarked on Cape Cod in November of 1620 and only came to Plymouth the next month to find a safer harbor. In fact, if it wasn’t for 94-year-old Thomas Faunce, we would know nothing about the rock.
Faunce claimed, in 1741—121 years after the Mayflower dropped anchor, that his father got off the ship with the others at the rock. Since he was a church elder no one questioned him. One of the reasons the rock is so small today (and enclosed) is because once Faunce announced this, people began chipping away at the rock to take some home. The Town of Plymouth itself broke the rock in two twice while trying to haul it to the center of town.
So, what remains of the rock is there in the sand. Stamped “1620”. Up to a million people visit the rock each year—many of them this week. And most probably say: “That’s it?”
I find the rock interesting not just because of its questionable provenance but because of our need to have a physical connection with the past. This is important. It is one of the reasons that people find visits to “the Holy Land” even today to be so valuable. Even though the actual locations of, say, Christ’s birth and resurrection are agreed to be hearsay, people are overwhelmed when visiting these sites. There is something about being in the same location where things that define us today actually happened.
There is, though, a difference between historical events and faith. They are linked, of course, because our faith is based on events that happened to real people in real places. And yet, in the end, what we hold dear, what shapes us as Christian people is independent of place. I think it would be a powerful experience to visit the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. But not having that experience doesn’t make the importance of what happened there any less real or impactful to me.
There is a long history, particularly during the era of the Crusades, of people needing to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at least once in their life time. You may not realize it, but you continue that tradition every week on Sunday. Instead of visiting holy sites in Jerusalem, you enter our sanctuary and find a connection with your creator. That is something far more important than touching the (supposed) actual stone of the empty tomb.
It is a little like prioritizing an appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy over a trek down to Plymouth to see what remains of the rock that the Pilgrims may or may not have used to step off of the Mayflower.
See you in church,
–Rev. Domini

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