Yesterday was the first day of Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Festival of Booths; the holiday continues for seven days, during which observant Jews will build and take some of their meals in, perhaps even sleep in, a sukkah, a small home within (or outside) their home. Unlike those Jewish holidays which hearken back to great moments of despair and deliverance, Sukkot is a simple occasion for celebration and feasting; while its primary inspiration is the tents which the Jewish people dwelt in during their sojourn in the wilderness in the days of Moses, it is also something of a Thanksgiving holiday, falling as it does during harvest time. And the truth is, I know of no other religious holiday that takes quite so seriously–and so joyously–the idea of having a home, a sheltered place, a secure refuge and a well-stocked storehouse, under God’s protecting hand. Not only is there no comparable Christian holiday, but I’m not even sure there could be.
If there is any single, overarching theological constant to all Jewish self-understanding, it might well be this: they are a remnant people, witness-bearers and sufferers, a chosen people who will endure as a reminder and a reproach to all the other inhabitants of the world for as long as the world endures. Much of this understanding was incorporated into Christian thought, especially amongst those movements–like our own–which sees the authentic Christian message as bound up with notions of covenant and peoplehood. The Mormons are not unique amongst Christians in using this “Jewish” language, but we certainly use it a lot more than most other denominations: our rhetoric is filled with invocations of our peculiarity, our royalness, our elect nature. But thinking about oneself as separate–“not of the world”–is only part of the Jewish story; one must also nonetheless be committed to the world–one must be, in a fundamental sense, “in” and part of it. And it is here where Christianity, Mormonism included, runs into trouble. For in the end, “worldliness” is that which is to be most avoided: we are to understand ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims,” living a life “that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The most poignant, and simultaneously most hopeful, summation of the whole Christian creed is probably the Savior’s sad yet loving concluding words at the Last Supper, as recorded by John: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Can the world simultaneously be something to be “overcome” and also something to be at home within? We can make a variety of distinctions in order to smooth out this possible contradiction: we can redefine “worldliness” so that it doesn’t have anything to do with the costs and complications of everyday life and work and ownership and commerce and relationships, and only condemns those things which are explicitly condemned by various commandments. Such a strategy can certainly work; historically, most Christian denominations have made use of it, our own included. But that approach only addresses issues that pertain to individual choices as they negotiate the world; it doesn’t help one in figuring out what it means to be, or if it is even possible to be, a Christian or a Mormon embedded, centered, at home within, this world.
Very broadly, one could argue that liturgical denominations–Catholicism and Orthodoxy–have done much more to develop theological responses to this problem, finding ways to identify various places, even various nationalities, with the Christian revelation, thus making one’s home also a sukkah, repository and refuge of holiness. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have been more individualistic, and thus less interested in creating alternative, holy homes. This is too simplistic, of course (on the one hand, consider the radical Protestant movements of the Amish or Hutterites, and their determination to create separate, consecrated, collective homes; on the other hand, consider just how far the American Catholic church has fallen in recent decades from its old aspiration to provide alternative way of living and celebrating for its members), but there is some truth to it. But what about us–we neither-Catholic-nor-Protestant, restorationist, philo-Semitic, Zion-talking, temple-going, revelation-receiving Christians, we Mormons? Can we properly celebrate having a home in this world?
Well, I suppose we could celebrate and consecrate Thanksgiving, or any other harvest or homeland holiday we choose (hey, Korea-fans: it’s also Chusok this weekend!)…though some would suggest that in this, we American Mormons are merely piggy-backing on American Protestantism, and need to do more to make our own perspective clearer. Some others are dubious that any such perspective is even coherent: our Mormonism sets us apart from any world that isn’t of our own making, America included. There is the notion of Deseret of course…but in an international, correlated, satellite-uplinked church, the idea of a tight little Mormon sukkah, an established home that defines and covers us all, seems like a pretty distant ideal. Perhaps, to bang an old drum of mine, we need to come up with our own holidays. (December 23rd is still available, I hear.)
Well, this is pretty abstract stuff, I admit. Feeling joyous and grateful for one’s home in the spirit of Sukkot is primarily just a function of having one in the first place (and that can be hard enough to achieve, as we’re learning). If you have a home, a place to partake of one’s harvest, or even if you just have fond memories of such a home (or homeland, for that matter), then Sukkot has something to teach you. Even if it is the case that Mormon homes, like other Christian ones, ultimately need to be understood theologically as transitory ones, we can still take the Jewish celebration as source of inspiration. After all, they’ve been making their homes and building their sukkahs while on the move for a lot longer than we.