Peter Eddington, an Australian native living near Cincinnati, will not be at work for about 10 days this month. Instead, he's decamping to a resort, spending mornings at worship services and afternoons having fun.
It's how Eddington, communications manager for the United Church of God has celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles for the past 50 years, the observance known to Jews worldwide as Sukkot that began at sundown on Oct. 8. Observant Jews construct small booths on their property in which they take meals, but Eddington's church turns the experience into a combination family reunion and spiritual experience.
"We see the Festival as more than a Jewish celebration, but also a New Testament church celebration that Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early church kept. But when you go back to the Old Testament, it does talk about getting away from your regular dwelling place," Eddington said in a telephone interview shortly before his departure.
Many of those observing predominately Jewish festivals with a Christian emphasis are part of a larger trend known as "Hebrew Roots Christianity" that has been growing in evangelical circles in recent years. The Tablet magazine estimates that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 such Christians across the United States and Europe, as well as Africa and Asia. Some are affiliated with traditional Christian denominations, while others belong to independent congregations. Rather than a departure from Christianity, Hebrew Roots practitioners say it brings them closer to worshiping as Jesus did, and Jewish reaction, for the most part, has been cautiously optimistic.
"When you start to actually follow what Jesus Christ taught, when you start to keep the weekly Sabbath and these annual festivals, they start to take on a lot of meaning for you, and you see how they lay out God's plan of salvation for mankind," Eddington said.
Eddington said members of the United Church of God — of which 14,000 are expected to attend events in the U.S., Canada and 37 overseas locations — use the Sukkot celebration "to picture what (the world) will be like when Jesus Christ returns, something humanity has never actually seen, but it's coming. It's a visionary kind of a week."
That means finding venues where there's an abundance of scenery and tourism opportunities. Resorts such as the Lake Tahoe area; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; the Florida coast; Hawaii; and Zambia near Victoria Falls in Africa have been prime spots in years past.
"Some festival sites are in some very humble locations, but wherever possible, we try to make it a millennial experience," Eddington explained, "because the Feast of Tabernacles in the New Testament understanding pictures a time when Jesus will rule on Earth, instituting God's kingdom showing a life of prosperity, health and happiness for everyone under His rule. Wherever possible, we try to choose a location that inspires that feeling."
However, he added, "it's not just a vacation, but also a religious celebration." Following Leviticus 4, the United Church of God observes the first and last days (of the Tabernacles event) as "high" observances, with day-long worship services. On the other days, morning worship and Bible study take place to teach "what the Festival observance is all about," Eddington said.
The afternoons are free time for families, barbecues or light meals and sightseeing. Evenings may host dances or talent shows.
Members of the United Church of God, which traces its roots to the teachings of the late radio/television evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong, are encouraged to save 10 percent of their annual income — what the group calls a "second tithe" — to cover festival observance costs.
"I would have to say this is probably the highlight of the year for all the (church) membership. Members plan a year or two in advance to select special locations," Eddington said.
Early church tensions
Relatively few Christian groups today observe the Old Testament festivals. Starting with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to the then-new Christian faith, holy days such as Easter and Christmas emerged as central elements of the Christian calendar, which coincided, some historians said, with pagan feast days already observed in the Roman world.
What elements of Jewish worship, if any, the Christian church should retain has been a subject of debate from the faith's earliest days. The gospel accounts portray Jesus as an observant Jew who observed the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2-11), but Paul later instructed believers at Rome to "(l)et every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" on the holy day question.
By the fourth century A.D., as Yale University emeritus biblical studies professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS, "we have evidence of Christians still existing within Jewish communities, and we have evidence of members of Christian communities participating in Jewish festivals." This came to a halt, Meeks said, when John Chrysostom, an early church father, preached against participation in synagogue worship, and by extension the Jewish festivals.
Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations and director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, noted that some Christians embrace the Jewish holy days "to disassociate from the anti-Judaism that has characterized Christianity for much of its history and to express solidarity with the Jewish people and, for some, with the State of Israel."
Eddington said, "There is a tendency in Christianity today to follow a lot of tradition that's been passed down over the past 2,000 years that quite honestly is not biblical." The United Church of God eschews Christmas and Easter in favor of the Feast of Tabernacles, Passover and Pentecost, as well as Rosh Hashana, which it calls the Feast of Trumpets, and the Day of Atonement, known to Jews as Yom Kippur.
Not every Christian thinker approves of the practice. In a blog post, Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul Jr. argued, "God gave the feasts to point our spiritual fathers toward Christ. They were shadows and He the real thing. The author of Hebrews warns his audience, professing believers who were tempted to go back to the Temple and the Old Covenant shadows, that to go back is to deny that Christ has come."
One of Armstrong's first evangelists, Roderick C. Meredith, has remained faithful to his mentor's teachings about Jewish festivals and now heads the Living Church of God in Charlotte, North Carolina. Via email, Meredith said his group has high expectations for this year's attendance.
"We expect approximately 10,000 people participating in our festival this year — though a number of our older brethren may not be able to attend," he said. "We are planning for about 50 sites for this observance in 32 nations around the world."
Both the Living Church of God and the United Church of God are often viewed as heterodox, or outside the mainstream of evangelicalism. But some evangelical churches are also incorporating elements of festival observance into their annual worship calendars, said Sandra Richter, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.
"More traditional mainline Christian denominations often incorporate a Passover seder into their Maundy Thursday commemorations, and all recognize that the Passover is the foundation of the Christian Communion celebration," Richer said. "There are many Christian congregations who teach on the feasts and periodically incorporate them into the Christian calendar."
The pro-Israel Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, will honor the Feast of Tabernacles later in October during a three-day event at which Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, is expected to speak. The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem will celebrate its Feast of Tabernacles observance in Jerusalem, an annual event that draws thousands of international visitors yearly.
Jewish reaction to the Christian observances depends on how it's undertaken, Rabbi Sandmel said. He said most Jews would appreciate a remembrance of their practices, so long as these are not done as a shadowy means of trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
Sandmel also cautioned Christians against grafting postexilic Jewish practices onto the New Testament picture of what Jesus of Nazareth did. Jesus' observance of the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles was different from the way Jews observed these after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
"To copy or adapt contemporary rabbinic practice to a Christian worship setting communicates a false picture of Judaism at the time of Jesus," Sandmel said.
For Meredith, the benefits of observing the annual event are chiefly spiritual: "I have found that observing the Feast of Tabernacles makes God more 'real' to me in many ways. Focusing on Christ’s return and His millennial rule certainly helps one understand prophecy better. Being surrounded by hundreds of individuals of like mind in worshipping the Creator gives a wonderful spiritual uplift as well."
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