We wish all our Jewish friends Happy Feast of Sukkot! Father David Neuhaus SJ proposes an answer to the question: What happened to Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) in the Christian tradition?

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In the Biblical tradition there are three central pilgrimage feasts: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Two of these three celebrations are explicitly taken up into the New Testament and receive a further layer of meaning. Passover is celebrated not only as the liberation from slavery in Egypt but the celebration of liberation from death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus (Easter). Pentecost is not only the celebration of the first fruits of the land, but the celebration of the first fruit of heaven – the giving of the Holy Spirit. However, what happened to the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in the Christian tradition?

In the ancient writings of Israel, Tabernacles celebrated the final harvest, when the people came to the Temple in Jerusalem to rejoice and give thanks to God after an agricultural year. They commemorated at this time the forty years of wandering in the Wilderness, where God had provided for all their needs while they found shelter in flimsy tabernacles (Leviticus 23:43). In prophetic literature (cf. Zachariah 14), the Feast of Tabernacles was connected with the end of time, when God will bring in a final harvest of Israel and the nations to worship in Jerusalem. At a first glance, it seems that this feast disappeared in the Christian tradition (even though Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospel of St. John, chapter 7).

ImageA second look however might find an echo of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration of Jesus, a feast celebrated on August 6. In the Holy Land, all eyes turn to Mount Tabor at this time, venerated as the “high mountain” of the Gospel account. The narrative of how Jesus was transfigured before the eyes of three of his disciples is retold in the Gospels (cf. Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Jesus, his face shining like the sun and his clothes brilliantly white, gives his disciples a vision of his glory before he enters into the Passion and Death. In fact, just before his ascent to the “high mountain”, Jesus had told his disciples for the first time that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die there. Peter had resisted this terrible prophecy. Now, confronted with Jesus, brilliantly transfigured, conversing with Moses the Law-Giver, and Elijah, the Prophet par excellence, Peter, one of the three with Jesus on the high mountain at the time of the Transfiguration, suggests building three tabernacles for the three figures. Peter seems again to be resisting the fact that Jesus must go down the high mountain to his suffering and death in Jerusalem. He would like rather to enshrine Jesus on the mountain. However, Jesus is not to stay on the mountain under a tabernacle, but must go to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. The tabernacles Peter seeks to construct are not those desired by God.

Forty days after the Transfiguration, on September 14, Christians commemorate the Cross of Christ. Many Christian traditions liken the wood of the Cross to the wood of the Tree in the Garden of Eden. Through one death entered the world because of disobedience (Adam ate from the forbidden tree), and through the other life was restored (Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross). The cross is also likened to Noah’s Ark (in which all who took refuge were saved) or Moses’ staff which wrought mighty works and guided the people. However, it might also be likened to a tabernacle. Instead of a tabernacle for Christ on Tabor, Jesus’ Cross provides a tabernacle for the Christian who takes refuge under it, fleeing from sin, gazing up at the Son of Man who has remained totally obedient to the will of his heavenly Father.

Furthermore, the Feast of the Cross has its origins in the day of dedication of the Church of the Resurrection (known in English as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher(. It was on September 14, 335 that the Constantinian edifice in Jerusalem was dedicated, a tabernacle for all Christians who seek refuge under the cross and turn their faces then to the glory of the risen Christ.

In the Christian communities of the Holy Land, three symbols are present on the Feast of the Cross: light, basil and pomegranates. Light signifies the light that the cross sheds on our lives. Basil, the green and perfumed herb, symbolizes the living tree that the cross is. The pomegranate, full of red juice (like the blood of Christ) and seeds (that signify the fertility of life), signifies the fullness of the mystery of Christ's death. The basil and the pomegranate of the Christian Feast of the Cross might even remind one of the lulav (the branches) and the etrog (the lime) upon which Jews say the blessing of the Feast of Tabernacles.

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