It was the mournful tones of the Kol Nidrei, bowed by my college roommate on the cello, that first caught at my heart. It was as if my ears were ever seeking that melody, and eventually I got the CD and would play it at this time of the year.
Because once Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, is past, Jews enter into ten days of prayer and fasting leading up to Yom Kippur, which will occur on October 4 this year. As I write this we are nearing sunset on Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, heading into that time of penitence.
As a retired Director of Religious Education, I’m curious about the practices of other faiths. Why do they do that, and how does it serve God? Do we have a similar practice?
When I learned about how Jews celebrate Yom Kippur, I was even more intrigued. I belonged to an ecumenical bible study, where we had a lot of input from a local rabbi and members of his congregation, who taught us a lot about Judaism. It was a good way to learn about our own Catholic roots. We learned about how Jews gather together on the evening of Yom Kippur to confess together their failures of the year previous, as they then resolve to do better.
Okay, we know how we make our resolutions for the new year and they are very quickly forgotten. Or the things we give up for Lent, which might or might not have a real bearing on our spiritual lives. But what if we had to stand with the whole congregation at church and own up to our failures. Would we think harder about how to do better next time?
I begged for an invitation to attend Yom Kippur at Temple Beth El in Carmel one year, and was able to stand with the congregation in its prayer of repentance. Now, thanks to Covid 19, you can actually stream a Yom Kippur service to see first hand how it works.
It just seems like an awfully good idea to me. Yes, we have confession, which is sort of the same, except private. We can be more explicit that way if we want to, although I know I’ve often kept my sins general enough that I could easily shout them out to the whole church, and have done so at times in small groups.
So, why confession as a body? Jews believe that they have sinned as a people. Even if one person is not guilty of stealing, for example, we as a people share in that guilt. It’s reasonable. Did the thief steal because the system was stacked against him? Was he poor because no one had reached out to help him? Had he been swayed by media? By a lack of moral training? This is not to say that there is not personal responsibility; it is rather to say that there is also communal responsibility. We share the burden of sin with others.
The Second Vatican Council, looking to our authentic roots, saw the importance of this sense of being a people together before the LORD. In revising our sacramental rites, the Church recognized that all of the sacraments are basically to be celebrated in community. Even the one-on-one confession to a priest is a community of two, as opposed to our confessing directly to God.
The priest, in this situation, represents the rest of the community. I used to tell the children preparing for first penance that it was much easier telling him than if they had to tell the whole church, which at one time would have been the case. In the early Church, confession was only allowed for very serious sins, and that was done publically. It was only later on that private confession became the norm.
The priest also represents Jesus Christ, who, as high priest, stands in place of God the Trinity as well as for his Body on earth.
To create a true sense of community, though, many parishes have communal reconciliation services. You may have them in your own parish during Advent and Lent. The beauty of drawing the sacrament into a more public setting is that we do acknowledge our common sinfulness and responsibility to one another.
The ritual is the same as what we do individually in the confessional now: there is a greeting, and the priest reads a passage of scripture, before we confess our sins. While we still go privately to a priest for the actual confession, the scripture is shared.
Another advantage of penance services is that we can grow in our sense of sin and repentance. The grace of the sacrament depends on our disposition: are we aware of our sins? Are we really sorry? A short homily, music, prayer together, a communal examination of conscience, can help to develop real contrition.
Yom Kippur is an ancient tradition that has threaded its way through the ages in God’s plan, leading to our present Reconciliation. Understanding that source of this practice can help deepen its meaning in our lives.