By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
Very early in life in Midwest, then Bendel and now Delta State, I came to realize that there were not too many festivities in our immediate family. There was no Christmas celebration for us because Christ was not born on December 25; so, we solemnly marked the anniversary of his birth in the October with sermons and reflections on the birth and life of Christ the Redeemer. There were no birthday celebrations whatsoever because it was vain to lavish money on the date of one’s birth. Besides, all instances of birthday celebrations in the Bible were not positive; indeed one ended with the decapitation of a vessel of God. Indeed, ‘happy birthday’ was not part of our lexicon; it was taboo, vain and unnecessary. For, the date of a man’s death was better than his birth. Was this why the Greeks said ‘call no man happy until he be dead? There were no New Year celebrations on 1st of January too. It was a narrow path. But we walked it. We lost nothing. This is not to say that some did not mark birthdays discretely! That is subject for another day!
The biggest celebration for us was the week-long Feast of Tabernacles which took place in the month of December every year, just before the rambunctious Christmas festivities. The Feast was celebrated in some major cities across Nigeria and we had the opportunity to travel to the chosen venue each year to a place ‘where The Lord shall choose’. I remember traveling to Warri from Sapele (1970), to Aba (1971), Lagos (1972), Benin (1973), Warri (1974) Port Harcourt (1975) and Lagos (1978) to mark the Feast of Tabernacles. The deep spiritual import of the celebration was really for the adults and elders. For us kids and later boys, it was fun travelling to cities which most of our peers had never been to. Besides, feeding was free and we had the opportunity to interact with friends and Christian brothers from all over the country. The celebration in Aba in 1971 was instructive. I heard about the word ‘curfew’ for the first time though it was mispronounced ‘coffin! ‘There is a ‘coffin’ on Aba and you cannot enter the town after 7pm’. I pictured a mighty coffin blocking our way into Aba by 7pm!
The fratricidal civil war had just ended and the hierarchy of the church led by President E.T. Otomewo made it a point to host the Feast in Aba to welcome brothers and sisters who had been in the thick of the war. Some had lived in Kano, Warri, Port Harcourt and other major towns before they were forced to flee for their lives into the Biafran enclave. It was a good time to preach in the war-torn area too and win souls and see the members who managed to stay alive after thirty horrendous months. The devastation I saw in Aba remained etched in my memory for long. We drove through Uli and as we travelled through Igbo country, I saw houses that still had bullet holes!
The Feast of Tabernacles was commanded by God to all mankind for us to remember how the migrating Israelites dwelt in booths during the biblical exodus. In other words, it also reminds us of our temporary stay in this world. We are sojourners as were our fathers and our days on earth are as a shadow’. It also was and is still in honour of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, the Greater and more Perfect Tabernacle. Jesus Christ himself observed the Feast as recorded by John where Christ proclaimed that whoever came to him to drink and believe in the saving gospel, ‘out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water’. The celebration itself consists of bible teachings (reading of the law) through lectures, singing and dancing, blessing of children, meetings of sub-groups, and a very colourful procession (carnival like) of celebrants around the town which terminates in Salem City. It is a public declaration by celebrants that they believe in the saving gospel of Christ. It is also meant to draw attention to the importance of the Feast by inviting all persons of goodwill.
In the last twenty years or more, Warri has been the permanent venue of the Feast of Tabernacles as celebrated by the God’s Kingdom Society. Before then the Feast celebration was held in different cities and sometimes was concluded in Warri. Even at the peak of insecurity in Delta State, the Feast was moved from Salem City Warri only once to neighbouring Sapele. During the civil war, the Tabernacles Feast was steadily observed by believers because of the ‘promised rain’ on all celebrants.
The Feast of Tabernacles therefore is both a spiritual event and a potential tourist attraction if the government gets its act right. Those who have visited Israel on pilgrimage would readily understand that for the Israelis, the tourist perspective, that is the business angle is more important even for the tour guides. When ‘pilgrims’ get to historic sites that are not of any real commercial value to the tour guides, they hurriedly move the group to the next site where they are more likely to make some quick money. Thus, commerce and religion go hand in hand. With that mammoth crowd coming into Warri every year, both the state government and the National Tourist Board should show some interest in the Feast.
The Feast of Tabernacles is meant for all Christians as enshrined in the Bible, the guide to all Christians. In the book of Zechariah, the prophet declares that ‘it shall come to pass that is left of all the nations …shall even go up from year to year to worship the king, the Lord of hosts and the keep the feast of tabernacles.’ This futuristic allusion means a lot to Christians because it confers on the current generation the obligation to observe the Feast.
This year the Feast of Tabernacles will be celebrated in Salem City Warri from the 15th to 22nd of December. As we travel home to different destinations, for different reasons, it is the prayer of all celebrants that the Feast will bring blessings to all and provide more reasons why we must give thanks to the Creator for his benevolence towards mankind. I started this essay with a personal testimony. It is only fitting for me to conclude with a personal reference too. The Feast over the years has provided material and equanimity for me to navigate through the minefield that is life in the work place and where one lives. And if to honour God is the whole duty of man, then the Feast of Tabernacles deserves a worthy place in the pantheon of Christian celebrations in Nigeria and the rest of the world.
-Eghagha can be reached on 08023220393