Sunday, March 8, 2009

Let Us Make Three Booths

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI discusses two ways of looking at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor. The first, and the one that he clearly favors, is that the event occurs within the context of the calendar of Jewish festival. One suggestion is that Peter’s confession occurs on Yom Kippur, the feast of atonement, and that the Transfiguration occurs during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which follows five days later. Another suggestion is that the both events occur within the Feast of Tabernacles, which lasted an entire week. The Transfiguration would then occur on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “which was both its high point and the synthesis of its inner meaning.”

Both interpretations have in common the idea that Jesus’ Transfiguration is linked with the Feast of Tabernacles. We will see that this connection actually comes to light in the text itself and that it makes possible a deeper understanding of the whole event. In addition to the specific elements of these accounts, we may observe here a fundamental trait of Jesus’ life, which receives particularly thorough treatment in John’s Gospel. As we saw in chapter 8, the great events of Jesus’ life are inwardly connected with the Jewish festival calendar. They are, as it were, liturgical events in which the liturgy, with its remembrance and expectation, becomes reality—becomes life. This life then leads back to the liturgy and from the liturgy seeks to become life again.
The Jewish liturgy saw its fulfillment in Christ. Our liturgy, makes present to us the actions of Christ. Liturgy is not just a memorial; it brings about a spiritual reality. The sacraments are not just symbols, they are efficacious signs.

To understand what happened at the Transfiguration, we need to understand the context of the events, which the Pope suggests is the Feast of Tabernacles. From Companion to the Calendar, A Guide to the Saints and Mysteries of the Christian Calendar, on Sukkot, The Festival of Booths:

At Sukkot, people obey the biblical command to live for seven days in huts. Each family or congregation constructs a shelter, usually with wooden slats and boughs from trees. (In Hebrew, this is called a sukkah. The plural of sukkah is sukkot.) As they build and decorate these beautiful booths, the people recall the 40 years when the Jews, wandering in the desert, put together sukkot each evening. . . .

Jewish mystics taught that the ancestors, beginning with Sarah and Abraham, come to visit the sukkah each evening. According to tradition, the Messiah will come at Sukkot and welcome all creation into God’s sukkah.
So according to some Jewish mystics, the feast of booths would have a Messianic fulfillment. That gives some explanation to the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is reluctant to attend the feast in Jerusalem because his time has not yet come. Being an observant Jew, however, he does go later, not publicly but in private. The events of John 7 probably take place a year or more before the Transfiguration. With the Transfiguration coming six days after Peter’s confession, his suggestion to build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah makes some sense.

What is most interesting to me, however, is Benedict's assertion that the Jewish calendar and liturgy were pivotal in the events of the New Testament. Jesus completed his mission in a liturgical context. It is not unreasonable to assume that our mission as Christians also occurs within a liturgical context. The liturgy is not secondary; it is central. The liturgy is life!

No comments: