What Christians Can Learn from Yom Kippur

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Today’s reflection is short.

As you read this on Sunday morning, our Jewish friends will be waking up on the first morning after the previous evening ended the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the “Day of Atonement,” their holiest day (plus one hour) of the year.

They will have spent that time reflecting on their mistakes, failings, transgressions – sins – of the entire past year.

It is almost certainly sheer coincidence, combined with an entirely unintentional Biblical play on words, that this week’s standard readings in “mainstream” Christian churches begin thusly in Exodus 17: “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages.” (That use of “Sin” is not metaphorical; it’s an actual place.)

That reading, and the others this week, all deal with themes of humility, confession, repentance and, ultimately, God’s mercy. (For example, in Philippians, Paul writes that we should model ourselves on the sacrificial humility of the Christ who died on the Cross; and in the Gospel Jesus lauds the son who had intended to disobey his father but then repented and worked in his vineyards after all.) So while it is a trick of the calendar, nothing more, that these readings should also fall on Yom Kippur this year, they do bring to mind the whole joint themes of penitence and repentance that are at the heart of the Jewish holy day.

This is how Jews start their liturgical year – much as our Advent, which begins the Christian liturgical year, also is a time of penitence, but quite unlike the secular New Year which many of us greet with drunken revelry. Judaism, from which the roots of Christianity sprouted and grew, is a religion that encourages reflection and self-improvement in the ways of the Lord.

We Christians are sometimes taught that penitential devotion is one of four main forms of prayer (the other three being praise/adoration, supplication/petition, and thanksgiving). I sense that for many of us (as it is for me), penitence is the form of prayer that comes far less easily or naturally than the others. And in modern “mainline Protestant” churches, especially the Episcopal Church, the words of the modern liturgy are noticeably less penitential than those in previous prayer books.

That’s why this is a short reflection this week. I’m bad at concentrating on penance. I’m full of thanks and praise and supplications, and intellectually I can understand, and force myself, to repent of various things I say or fail to do – but I can’t stay in that position long. And I certainly can’t do it for 25 hours!

All of which is good reason to embrace Christianity’s roots in Judaism, and to admire the Jewish people who still hold fast to their traditions. Again and again the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, calls us to repent. Repentance is cleansing, and it is self-improving – and it leads us from the wilderness of Sin, into fuller communion with the Almighty. Praise the Lord – and please pass the blintzes.



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