Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sukkot: Pilgrimage to the Past, Window to the Future

The Jewish calendar contains three "Pilgrimage" holidays. All three are commanded and explained in Leviticus 23:  Passover, Shavu'ot, and Sukkot.

Passover, a Spring festival, remembers the passing over of the Angel of Death at the time of the Exodus. The last of the plagues leading to the release of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the only escape was to sacrifice a perfect lamb and paint the blood on the door of the house. The Angel of Death would see the blood and pass over it, not striking the first born of that family dead. Four hundred years of slavery ended when the Pharaoh's own son was taken by death. Every spring, Jews around the world clean their homes of leaven, serve a feast that includes symbols of the slavery and God's emancipation, and celebrate God's faithfulness to preserve His people through the generations.

Christians understand Passover because of its close connection to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.  Every child who attended Sunday School and every adult who wanders into a church during that festival time hears the story of the passing over, knowing that is was this pilgrimage that took Jesus to Jerusalem for the final time. The Last Supper was the Passover meal. During that meal, Jesus told his disciples that He would be the ultimate Sacrifice for the nations. Not understanding that He would be the perfect Lamb for future generations, the disciples smiled, nodded, sang a hymn and retired to Gethsemane. Only hours later, Jesus was arrested (on trumped up charges), tried (three times, illegally), and condemned. By the end of the day, He was crucified and He died. On the third day, His body was gone from the tomb where He had been buried, and in the next 50 days, he was seen--living, breathing, teaching, eating--by more than 500 individuals.

That 50th day is the second of the three Pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish people: Shavu'ot. This "Feast of Weeks" celebrates the first of the harvest, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the calling out of the Hebrew people to show kindness to their kinsmen. This same festival served as the backdrop for the first fruits of the Church and the Ascension of Jesus to heaven. Back in May I wrote a five part investigation of Christianity and Shavu'ot; you can find the first one here.

That brings the story to the third Pilgrimage festival. Interestingly, this festival has three distinct parts: the sounding of the Shofar, the Day of Atonement, and the week of Booths.  It's a repeating theme in Scripture: subdivide important elements, and then subdivide the last (and most important) further. Three is also a significant number, but that is for another study. This particular set of holy days is also the only one without a current connection to Christianity. This is also significant, as is illustrates the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, knowing that there are still prophecies to be fulfilled. Scholars can only speculate how and when the final prophecies will be fulfilled, but, given the connections between the first two pilgrimage festivals and significant events in Christian history, it is certain that SOMETHING will ultimate connect this third pilgrimage to Jesus.

The Festival of Trumpets (Rosh Hashana) is the first part of this celebration. There are a number of activities associated with Rosh Hashana, but in essence, it serves as the New Year with a time for reflection of the past year, a casting off of sins, and a wish for a sweet year to come.

The second part is the most solemn of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the day wherein the names of the saved are written and sealed in the books of God. It is the last opportunity to demonstrate repentance. It is a day of fasting and sorrow and prayer.

Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, follows Yom Kippur by five days. Levticus 23 explains:
“‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”

 From the solemnity of Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a dramatic change. It is a joyous celebration, set to commemorate the forty years of wandering in Sinai under Moses and the in-gathering of the harvest. The most obvious element is the building of the sukkah, or temporary swelling. This commemorates the temporary shelters of the Hebrews in the desert, and the idea is to spend as much time in the sukkah as possible: meals, activities, and even sleeping. There are specific plans to building the shelter (three walls, branches for roof, and decorated). Building the sukkah is a fun family activity that inspires both thankfulness for God's provision and a sense of community, first within the family, and secondly for the Jewish people around the world all celebrating together.

Another tradition of Sukkot is the directional waving of four different plants, each with symbolic significance. Citron (a citrus fruit native to Israel) represents the heart as well as Jews who know, understand, and respect the scripture and traditions of Judaism. The palm branch symbolizes the spine, the strength of the Jewish people, as well as those Jews who may know Torah, but do not practice their faith. These may be the secular or political Jews in the world.  A myrtle leaf is the eye, or those Jews who do good deeds without really understanding why or how the traditions came about. These may be the Jews who adhere to the traditions because it's what their families have done for generations. Finally, the willow branch represents the mouth or those Jews are Jews in name or ethnicity only, who have no desire to understand the Torah, the traditions, or the faith.

The plants are waved in all directions to show that, no matter what the person's faith may be, God is everywhere. He sees, He knows, and He provides--even to those who do not recognize Him.

Sukkot is also the end of the growing season, so the harvest is gathered in and thanks is given to God for His provision for that year. The willow is shaken at the end of the festival until all its leaves fall off, symbolizing the end of that season and the hope for a new fruitful one to follow.

So, how might this pilgrimage festival find its way into Christianity? There is a possibility that the US Thanksgiving found its roots in the biblical description of this celebratory feast of thanksgiving and harvest. It makes sense that the religious leaders would turn to the Bible for inspiration. However, it is too important a holiday to be so inconsequential to the Christian Church worldwide. The true significance for the Church, then, must be yet to come.

The sukkah is a reminder that this world is not our true home. Hebrews 11 connects this fact to Abraham by reminding us that he was a stranger in a land, living in tents:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 
Abraham is considered one of the Fathers of the Faith because He trusted God for his momentary provision, but also looked ahead to a permanent home with the Father. Moses, too, trusted for daily bread (manna), while looking forward to the Promised Land, both on earth, and in Paradise. Jesus, too, reminded His followers that He is preparing a place for those who seek His way:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14)

So, there is a good reminder of the past and the present and the future in the temporary shelters constructed for this holiday. But is there more? Certainly the reminder that we are strangers and aliens is important, especially in a culture obsessed with material things. Even our bodies are subject to decay, and will not last. Our souls, however, are eternal, and once this tent of a body is destroyed, the spirit is literally with God. So, then, knowing this, how do we live?

The message of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ties into Peter's first letter, which says in part:

     Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1)

But what of the future? The symbolism of the plants must have a connotation for some future event. The final shaking of the willow seems to be reflect the words of Haggai, as repeated in Hebrews:

      But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn,whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
     See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”(Hebrews 12)
The book of Daniel reveals an ending to this earth that we still cannot really imagine. Revelation expands Daniel's vision from a seven year tribulation, an Armageddon that Hollywood will never concoct, a lake of fire, and finally a great cloud of witnesses worshiping at the Throne of the Almighty. Certainly the unfaithful and the uncertain will be shaken like willows in that time.  There will be an in-gathering of believers by death or by rapture when Jesus returns, as He promised. As for when, not only can we not know, we should not really SEEK to know. We, as followers of Jesus, have other work to do. It may be tempting to speculate on the when and how of future events, but:

      Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
     Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3)

The need for atonement and forgiveness of sin is apparent just by looking at society.  While it is beneficial to act on repentance in visible ways, atonement with God cannot be made by the actions of man. If that were the case, there would have been no need for Jesus to be the perfect Lamb so that Death passes over those who cover themselves in Him. The blessing of first fruit is us when we choose to live for Jesus--not in a Pharisaical-thank-god-I-am-better-than-everyone-else way, but in living a life that lets the sweetness of Him who saved us flow through us to a bitterly hungry world. Peter, that brash Galilean fisherman turned mighty man of God wrote:

    Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
     So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (1 Peter 3)

No matter what the connections to the future Sukkot may have to Jesus in the future, there is a clear message to us in the present: Live for Jesus, knowing that this life is a blink in the grand view of eternity, and for whatever time the Father grants to us on this earth, we must be ambassadors for the One who provides the only true reconciliation between God and man.

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