In the Jewish calendar there is a feast, of which symbol, the tent, made of fresh branches, resonates well with the theme of Christian ‘baptism’. It was a feast, as we know from Nehemiah (8:14-18), when they Jews returned from their exile. Moses instructed this feast. ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So, the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths.’
Sukkoth is celebrated not in the actual time of the Exodus, when spring comes with warm wind and the sun is promising the beauty of summer but when cold winds begin to blow and drizzling rains sudden the autumn.
The birth and bringing up of a child, is the fruit of their parents’ hard work. Baptising the child, is a reminder that it is an ongoing journey. In a sense, baptism is a reminder of the fact that life is fragile, it needs support, extra care. In the Christian baptism we confess, that we need God’s help. Today we are standing in front of God, like the Jews when they built their fragile tents. This feast falls on the autumn. To dwell in booths in the spring was no trial of their belief in providence. To do so at the approach of winter is to proclaim to the world that the chosen people were prepared to face hardship for their covenant with God.
The Bible does not give a detailed direction for the building of the Sukkoth-tent. Neither does it define what constitutes ‘dwelling’ in it. It is a bit like with parenting and baptism, the covenantal journey of the parents itself. The actual erection of the booth was an adventure in which young and old used to participate with enthusiasm. Surrounding themselves with life’s necessities in this imperfect temporary abode, the Jews were further reminded of their uncertain lease of life and of the need at all times to cast their eyes heavenward. They re-lived the experiences of their ancestors, how joyful it was to be liberated by God and return to the promised land. They remembered the sufferings and hardships of their forefather. They gave wholeheartedly thanks for their liberation and God’s grace.
Baptism within the liturgy shows us in a similar position. We know that God will richly bless this child, and her family, but we have to be ready to work for the child’s future. There will be hardships in this new Christian life, which is about to begin soon. But we know that God will give, can give, her a safe arrival to the full joy of Christian faith. Until then, parents, godparents, relatives, and members of our congregation will be the child’s ‘tent-builders’.
We are reminded by our symbol of the ‘shaky nature’ of the booth, of which branches the stars of the sky, or the rainy clouds can be seen. We have to be aware that keeping the Christian faith alive is a laborious work. Setting an example to remain faithful to our baptismal vows, saying no to the works of Satan, saying a full yes to God’s goodness, and the godly way of life, is a hard toiling. But during our joint journey with the child we shall be enjoying heavenly protection.
For us, Christians, the feast of baptism, is our ‘feast of the Tabernacles’. When we think back to our own journey into faith, from our baptism, we are reminded of the hardships, and the moments of being lost on this journey. But this child’s feast, the symbols of the fulfilment of faith (anointing with the oil of the Catechumens, the oil of the Chrism, and the candle of faith), is also an anticipation of our ultimate happiness with God, which we shall enjoy in our final abode, in the House of Love, Heaven.
The Feast of the Tabernacles have another important symbol, the four plants used in the feast. The golden citrus and the tall palm branch, decked with sprigs of flowering myrtle and graceful willow, the four species, mentioned in Lev 23:40. They represent four different types of persons, each with his or her own virtues and shortcomings, who all combine in one common effort to serve God. Thus, the Etrog, a fruit both pleasant in appearance and in fragrance, typifies comeliness, fragrance of reputation and fruitful activity. The willow, those who lack both beauty and fragrance, who produce no fruit and wilt easily. The myrtle which is fragrant and comely in appearance but bears no fruit, resembles the pious who are not productive; while the Lulav, possessor of stately height and fruit-bearing even in the desert, typifies those who have endurance, dignity and good-will and give of their best in thought and action.
These plants resemble also the four chief organs of the human body. The Etrog resembles the heart; both must be flawless. The willow is shaped like the mouth; as the former drinks of the water by the side of which it grows, so must the latter drink at the perennial fount of the Bible. They myrtle, cast in the shape of the human eye, bids us be pleasant in character; while the Lulav, fashioned like the spinal cord, is a sermon in uprightness.
The Baptism which we celebrate today, and the work of support to the newly baptised, are similarly reminders of the Christian virtues. Starting with the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, as it comes purely from God. So, let our task be to think about those virtues, those human virtues, which all of us must practice, in order that this child might arrive to a fully adult Christian faith, and that we ourselves might arrive to our final abode, which God has prepared for us. So, let the building blocks of this child’s journey be these virtues, Temperance, Humanity, Charity, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice, diligence, patience, kindness, humanitas, satisfaction, compassion, and humility
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..