emmanul-mary-in-sukkotIn a festival Sukkot,
new mother Mary marvels at Emmanuel’s birth

And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us,
and we beheld his glory,
glory as of an only begotten of a father,
full of grace and truth.
(John 1:14, Young’s Literal Translation)

A friend of mine is married to a Messianic rabbi. Some­times referred to as “completed Jews,” they believe that Jesus (or Y’shua, as they call Him) is the Messiah the Hebrew scrip­tures foretold. I was fascinated to learn from her that they cele­brate the birth of Christ—not on December 25, nor even at the time of Hanukkah—but during the annual Feast of Taberna­cles. Here’s why:

Scripture tells us that Jesus was conceived when Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant with John (See Luke 1:26-36). A careful reading of Luke 1:5-25 tells when that was. John’s father, Zechariah, “who belonged to the priestly divi­sion of Abijah” (Luke 1:5), was serving at the tem­ple when the angel foretold the birth of his son. According to the schedule of the priests’ rotation recorded in 1 Chronicles 24:1-10, Abijah’s division was slated to serve eight weeks after the beginning of the Jewish calendar—about the time of Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks referred to in Exodus 23:16). After his week of service, the priest went home and his wife conceived, as prom­ised. Six months after Pentecost (which takes place about May or June each year) would have been Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (which occurs in December).

So Jesus, referred to by John as “the Light,” was con­ceived during the Festival of Lights at roughly the time we celebrate Christmas. But He was not born at that time.

Nine months from this holiday commemorating the dedi­cation of the temple, the Jews observe another festival called Sukkot. Falling on a week in Septem­ber or October, this har­vest festi­val was mandatory for all the Jews. They were required to build temporary shel­ters of branches and live in these booths, or tabernacles, for a full week. According to Leviticus 23:39-43 this com­memorated the forty years that the children of Israel lived in tents in the wilderness with God Himself dwell­ing among them. John apparently alludes to this, when he says the Word (Jesus), ‘tabernacled’ among us.

Because this was one of three national holidays requir­ing the attendance of every Jewish male, Jerusalem and its sur­rounding villages were packed at this time of year. So not only was the population of Bethlehem swelled beyond nor­mal capacity, thanks to the decree from Caesar; but probably every available bed was taken due to this important festival, as well. No wonder Mary and Joseph (who must’ve traveled more slowly than most because of her delicate condition) couldn’t find any room in the inn! It may be that the compassionate inn­keeper allowed the expectant couple to take shelter in his very own festival booth—which might explain why Jesus was laid in a manger, or stall, as we’re told in Luke 2:6-7.

Another clue that Jesus was born during this fall Feast of Ingathering, rather than in the dead of win­ter, is found in Luke’s gospel: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keep­ing watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). In Israel, it is too cold for shepherds to bed down in the open with their sheep in Decem­ber. Rather, they take them out to pasture and return to a warm stable before dark. But in Sep­tember and October, it is still warm enough to camp out in the hills and val­leys—where angels found the shepherds and declared Christ’s birth to them.

What’s the significance of all this? Students of the Old and New Testament discover that the Jewish festivals all point to Jesus. As we saw, the “Light of the World” was conceived during the Festival of Lights. He was crucified during Pass­over, signifying He was the “Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). He was raised from the dead on the day of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:10-11)—“the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” and have been raised again (1 Corinthians 15:20). How appropriate, then, that He should be born in a booth during the Feast of Tabernacles as Immanuel—“God with us” (from Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Mat­thew 1:22-23)—sent to “tabernacle” among His people, as God first did in the wilderness with Israel.

This also points to a time when Jesus and God the Father will live forever among men. In Revelation 21:3, we read: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven say­ing, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.’” If we accept God’s gift of eternal life pro­vided through Jesus Christ (John 3:16 & Romans 6:23), then we will have the privilege of spending eternity in God’s camp, enjoying His presence!

So, as you think about Jesus’ birth this year, consider it in this new light—that our Lord came and tabernacled among us during His earthly ministry. After He returned to His heavenly home, He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in us until He comes back (John 14:15-24). Someday those who have His Spirit liv­ing within will get to be with Him forever. May you be privi­leged to take part in this ever­lasting festival of God’s presence!

© 2010, by Deborah Schaulis

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