By KASEY BAR
Across the globe - in Chatsworth, England; Panajachel, Guatemala; Devonport, Tasmania; Hyderabad, India; Melbourne, Florida, and hundreds of other locations - Christians are gearing up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
Jerusalem is, of course, the most coveted location for celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, or Succot, and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) has been sponsoring a week-long spectacular there each year since its inception in September 1980. That ground-breaking celebration quickly grew into Israel's largest annual tourist event, with more than 5,000 Christians regularly attending from over 100 nations.
The success of that event appears to have spawned a growing number of Feast gatherings worldwide that today involve tens of thousands of Christian celebrants, some of whom may never be able to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
"Being in the body of Christ... enables us to experience the Feast of Tabernacles in unity, harmony and joy as if we were all at one site," says Ryan Denee of the Restored Church of God, which will be holding a Succot gathering again this year.
"Due to the sociopolitical situation in Honduras, we are not going to be able to attend this year's Feast in Jerusalem," says Fabiola Radriguez de Vieytez of Honduras, who has missed only two Feasts in Jerusalem since 1984. "But we think it is important to always remember the faithfulness of our God in every situation, and we will be celebrating the Feast locally with Pastor Evelio Reyes of Vida Abundante in Tegucigalpa."
How many Feasts will there be this year? According to the Web site www.feastgoer.org, there are at least 200 public Christian celebrations of the Feast in nearly 100 countries. This statistic represents only organized events that have been widely advertised.
FeastGoer is a Web venture dedicated to connecting Christians with biblical Feast celebrations in their respective areas. They state that they "believe the God-given Feasts are entirely relevant to the Christian today and teach so much about God and Jesus Christ that they cannot be overlooked and relegated to the past."
But for centuries of Christian history, that is exactly what happened. Both the Jewish Bible and New Testament reveal the Feast of Tabernacles as a corporate celebration. However, in the fourth century, when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he forced both Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus to give up any ties with Judaism, Jewish practices and the Hebrew calendar under the threat of imprisonment or death. All the biblical holidays and feasts were either replaced by new holidays or rejected entirely.
Over the ensuing centuries, Christians drifted further and further from their Hebraic roots, to the point that contemporary Christianity had lost touch with the biblical feasts that Jesus himself faithfully observed.
It was in the 19th century that certain Christian leaders were moved by a deep desire to reconnect to Israel, and they had a great impact on Zionism. In the US, Protestant minister William Blackstone circulated a petition in 1892 to urge the US to reestablish a Jewish state in Palestine. Meanwhile in Europe, Rev. William Hechler, chaplain of the British Embassy in Vienna, became a close friend of Theodor Herzl, father of the modern Zionist movement. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Christians began looking at biblical references to Israel more practically, including the divine call to keep the appointed feasts "forever, throughout the generations" (Leviticus 23:41).
For example, noted writer Basilea Schlink, co-founder of the Evangelical order of the Sisters of Mary, arranged to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in her hometown of Darmstadt, Germany, in 1946. But the practice did not become a mainstream Christian event until the early 1980s, when the Christian Embassy began hosting its international Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.
Since its inception in 1980, the ICEJ has faithfully encouraged pilgrims from all nations to join them in Jerusalem to celebrate the biblical feast. This is in anticipation of the prophecy spoken of in Zechariah 14:16 that all the nations will one day come up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord and keep the Feast of Tabernacles.
This event has become the signal Christian Zionist gathering in Israel each year, and what began in Jerusalem 30 years ago has now spread throughout the world. The ICEJ's Feasts have always featured not only strong biblical messages but also Hebraic worship, Davidic dance, artistic banners and other innovations that have now been duplicated far and wide.
"It's really not a tourist event. It is indeed a celebration of God's love, an expression of the diverse and united Kingdom of God, and a statement of God's faithfulness to Israel," says Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the ICEJ.
It is true that there is no other site like Jerusalem, yet the message of Succot reverberates across borders and continents, demonstrating that no matter where Christians are, they share the same inspirations.
Vieytez says what she enjoys most is the Communion services conducted at the Feast celebrations in Jerusalem and now in her native Honduras. "We have the opportunity to share in unity, no matter our language, race, or anything else."
"God gave the holidays for His purpose, to both Jews and gentiles, to help us see God and understand His plan of redemption," says Joan Lipis, author of the new book Celebrate Jesus: A Christian Perspective of the Biblical Feasts. She toured the US over the High Holy Days to encourage people to celebrate the festivals of Israel in order to better understand Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
Lipis says that in the past, she tried to spend every Feast in Israel, but now she wishes to share the message of the Feasts with the world in their own area and with respect to their own cultures and traditions. This year she will be observing the Feast of Tabernacles in Portland, Oregon.
"When we come together to celebrate the Feast in our different cultures and different traditions but according to God's calendar, we are demonstrating to the world, and the powers and the principalities, our diversity yet unity in the one new man, Christ Jesus," she says, just as the prophet Nehemiah wrote that "all the people assembled as one man" at Succot. Thus for Christians around the world, it should be a natural step to assemble as one body in observance of the Feast, she says.
Even as thousands of Christians attend the Feast celebrations in Jerusalem this year, tens of thousands more will be gathering in locations throughout the world. They will be dancing to their own rhythms and singing and teaching in their own languages, but also worshiping with one heart.
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