Just over a week ago, on October 4th our Jewish brothers and sisters observed the high holy day of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. This holy day is one of the most important in the Jewish calendar, behind only Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which took place ten days before that.
The atonement of Yom Kippur is between God and man. A tradition Catholics have in common with Judaism is the belief that God inscribes our names in a Book of Life. Jews believe that the judgement written into this book is sealed on Yom Kippur, so this day is the last chance to demonstrate repentance, make amends, and be set right with God. But before approaching God, atonement for sins against another person comes first, by seeking reconciliation, and making amends – a principle of Christianity as well. (Matthew 5: 23-24 tells us that we are to be reconciled with our brother before presenting our offering at the altar.)
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting from food and water, a day of prayer (a day-long service in the temple), and repentance. The service begins with the Kol Nidre in which all vows made in the coming year are annulled (vows of the sort we make when trying to strike a bargain with God, such as: Please God, let me get this job and I’ll never ask for anything again.) The service also includes a confession of the sins of the community and petitions for forgiveness, and then concludes with Ne’ilah, in which they make a declaration of faith and sound the Shofar. The Ark remains open for this service (worshipers must stand for the duration, typically an hour), signifying the gates of heaven are open to receive their prayers. A new year of goodness and happiness is to come, assured their names are in the book of life. They end with a prayer expressing their hope that next year they may be in Jerusalem.
God’s plan for our salvation is ancient. Isn’t it wonderful to see the line of inheritance of faith extend back to the time of Christ and even beyond? As well as the teachings that are fulfilled in Christ, Judaism bequeaths to us the beautiful rituals that incorporate all our senses, our whole being by bringing our faith alive through music and incense, community and feasting, self-denial and study.
Do you hear the echoes of our own traditions in the beautiful holy day of Yom Kippur? I give thanks for the Jewish roots in our faith that have flowered as the sacrament of reconciliation and the holy season of Lent. Both provide us an opportunity to address our failings, to seek forgiveness, and to make reparation. Our liturgical season of fasting and abnegation is still a long way off, but as I was thinking about the coincidence of these two holidays (Yom Kippur with its fasting, and Thanksgiving with its feasting) sitting so close together on the calendar I realized that – in the way of God – it isn’t really a coincidence at all. There is something perfectly right in the sequence: be reconciled with our brother, seek atonement with God, then have a party and feast with the newly restored community of friends and family.
Next year in Rome!