Some congregations maintain some of Jesus’s Jewish traditions by following the holiday schedule set out in the Old Testament
A Living Church of God congregation in San Diego celebrates the Feast of Tabernacles — the church’s name for Sukkot — in 2016. (Courtesy of the Living Church of God/via JTA)
NEW YORK (JTA) — On the night of Rosh Hashanah, thousands of people will leave work, gather in congregations across the globe and worship God, the ruler of the world. Ten days later they will begin a fast and gather again to pray, this time atoning for their sins.
On both occasions they will praise Jesus Christ and pray for his return.
They are not Jews, nor are they Jews for Jesus. Rather, these congregants are members of an evangelical Christian movement called the Living Church of God. On the days Jews know as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these Christians celebrate what they call the Feast of Trumpets and Day of Atonement.
“We’re not trying to be Jewish,” said Dexter Wakefield, a Living Church minister and the church’s spokesman. “We’re obeying God’s commandments. The holy days have great meaning for the Christians who keep them.”
Living Church of God is one of a few evangelical groups that observes Christianity as it believes Jesus observed it, according to the dictates of the Hebrew Bible. That means no Christmas and no Easter — holidays the church rejects as pagan in origin. It also means that members observe their Sabbath like the Jews: from Friday night to Saturday night. The mainstream Christian custom of observing the Sabbath on Sunday, they believe, is another deviation from the authentic Christianity of Christ.
Christian supporters of Israel march during a parade for the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem in 2006. Thousands of Evangelical Christians participate in an annual pilgrimage to support Israel (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Though the Living Church of God, which has about 10,000 members, advocates observing the Sabbath on Saturday as well as Jewish holidays, they are not Messianic Jews, who self-identify as Jewish and use Hebrew scripture and liturgy. Nor are they Seventh-day Adventists, who observe a Saturday Sabbath but no other Jewish holidays.
The church has nearly 400 congregations on six continents, and most of its membership is in North America, with headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is governed by a Council of Elders and is an ideological outgrowth of the philosophy of Herbert Armstrong, whose preaching of Old Testament observance inspired several churches that see themselves outside of the evangelical mainstream.
A seder plate at the Cross Life Church in Alvarado, Arkansas. (Courtesy)
For the Living Church of God, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the former begins this year on the evening of September 20 and the latter at sunset September 29 — are two of seven festivals celebrated across the year. Those festivals correspond to the five Jewish holidays commanded in the Torah – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. The church gets to seven by treating Shemini Atzeret, the holiday at the end of Sukkot, as a separate festival, and by splitting Passover in two – the first day and everything that comes afterward.
“These days were clearly commanded in the Old Testament, and their observance by Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament certainly ratifies them for the Christian Church,” the church’s founder, Roderick Meredith, wrote in a pamphlet. “True Christians are to keep holy the days God made holy. And we are to follow the example of Jesus and the original Apostles in so doing.”
These holidays correspond to the annual agricultural cycle, and have also taken on Jewish historical significance. But for the church, they reflect steps in the second coming of Jesus and the world’s ultimate redemption.
Rather than marking the New Year, Rosh Hashanah — a one-day holiday called the Feast of Trumpets, a reasonably literal translation of its name in the Torah, Yom T’ruah — marks the day when Jesus will appear again hailed by trumpets. Yom Kippur, translated as the Day of Atonement, marks the day when Satan will finally be defeated.
The church celebrates each day with a service — short by Jewish High Holiday standards — that includes a short and long sermon on the theme of the day, bookended by hymns. Like observant Jews, on the Day of Atonement congregants will take the day off and abstain from eating and drinking. But on the High Holidays they dispense with Jewish rituals like dipping apples in honey, wearing white robes known as kittels or blowing a shofar.
Congregants celebrate the Passover seder at the Cross Life Church in Alvarado, Arkansas. (Courtesy)
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