I’ve been puzzling over how to connect a text from our Immerse reading of the book of Leviticus this week with the upcoming Transfiguration Sunday text from Mark 9:2-9. It finally struck me that the connection is there in those “tabernacles” Peter wished to construct for Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain. The Feast of Tabernacles has its first clear designation in Leviticus 23:33-43. And both biblical scholarship and church tradition see a connection.
The traditional date for the Feast of the Transfiguration is not this coming last Sunday of Epiphany. It’s August 6, which Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans all still celebrate as the Feast of Transfiguration. Celebration at the end of Epiphany just before Lent is a more recent Protestant innovation. The August date makes it closer to the fall, September or October, date of the Feast of Sukkot, the contemporary Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
Eastern Orthodox Christians specifically connect the feasts of Transfiguration and Tabernacles, seeing Tabernacles as “the feast of the coming kingdom,” which is fulfilled by the coming of Christ and manifest in the Transfiguration.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the account of the Transfiguration begins by saying it occurs at the end of an approximately week-long period (6 days in Matthew and Mark, 8 days in Luke). That leads some Bible scholars to believe that it in fact occurred at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles. Which could be the reason the notion of those temporary shelters was at the top of Peter’s mind when he did not know what else to say, as Mark 9:6 tells us.
In any case, I’ve got my connection to Leviticus and a text from that book to start from for my sermon. In Leviticus, the Feast of Tabernacles is largely agricultural, celebrating the conclusion of the harvest. It’s a time of joy bookended by two days of complete rest, a celebration of work completed and abundance of provision. That reminds us of the gifts of new life we enjoy and celebrate in Christ.
At the end of the directions for Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23:42 and 43, the festival is specifically connected with Israel’s life in the wilderness. It’s a week of living in temporary shelters which recalls that is how it was when they came out of Egypt. They lived in “tabernacles,” in tents. And God met them there in the Tabernacle which they built and carried with them. As Leviticus also recalls, the glory and presence of God was there in that Tabernacle, in the midst of the smaller tabernacles in which they lived.
So the presence and glory of Jesus, shown to Peter, James and John on the mountain, is a sign that God continues to come and meet us where we live. As I suggested in last week’s sermon, Jesus Himself is the new tabernacle of God’s presence. On the mountain we see that plainly through the apostles’ eyes.
One other thought occurs to me. For Jews, Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, includes a strong mandate to welcome guests, ushpizin in Hebrew. So inviting guests to celebrate a meal with you in your booth is a blessed act. Perhaps that’s one reason Peter’s plan for tabernacles on the mountain failed. It would have kept the blessing of Jesus for the three disciples alone. But the ultimately the tabernacled presence of God is meant to be for everyone through Christ. His glory could not be closed up and kept on the mountain. He went back down into the world to give that glory to us all.