You may have driven though Nevada on I-80, or maybe flown over. If you had a window seat, you could have looked down to see streambeds, sometimes even rivers cascading out of a cleft in a craggy mountain height in the spring, only to disappear in the valley below. You might have asked yourself where that water went.
We know about aquifers in this day of water scarcity, a reservoir underground to be tapped when needed.
But I’m talking about a different kind of river—the flow of a tradition down through the generations. Yom Kippur is one of those, with its source in Numbers 29:7:
“On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall hold a sacred assembly, and mortify yourselves, and do no sort of work. “ Moses instructed the people that they should offer sin offerings at that time.
Those sacred assemblies will be held tonight after sundown in Jewish communities around the world. People will gather to acknowledge their failures and promise to make amends. Recall that the first day of this seventh month was celebrated as the beginning of the new year, with Yom Kippur 10 days later, both falling some time in September or October.
So, clearly, this stream of tradition is still very much alive in the Jewish community. But what happens to it in the consecutive Christian community, which has inherited the bulk of Jewish tradition in its liturgies and scriptures? Passover, for example, followed for us in the Easter Triduum, where we find Jesus celebrating the feast of Passover before becoming our Paschal Lamb. Did early Christians continue to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, just as they continued to attend Sabbath services in addition to celebrating the first day of the week, the day of Resurrection?
We have some clues suggesting that this might be true—surprising clues which point to more of a shared tradition that I was aware of.
First, what about this “seventh month?” Actually, the old Roman calendar began the year at the spring equinox, skipping January and February, and started numbering the months at March, which would put September at seventh.
Second, we have a mention in Acts 27, during the account of Paul’s perilous sea journey to Rome, probably beginning in early September. “Much time had now gone by. The autumn fast was over, and with the lateness of the year, sailing had become hazardous.” (The rest of the chapter is an exciting read about a dangerous journey.) This “autumn fast” would have been the days leading to Yom Kippur.
Third, we find that in the 5th Century, the medieval Church observed the Feast of the Seventh Month—likely, a continuation of the autumn fast Luke mentioned in Acts. In fact, Pope Leo the Great considered this “an apostolic institution.”
This autumn fast, along with similar times in Lent, at Pentecost and in Advent came to be celebrated by the Church as Ember Days. These were still practiced in the Church of my childhood, although even then they had lost a lot of their importance. The post-Vatican II calendar no longer listed them, and the Lectionary discontinued their readings specific to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from Numbers.
Some would like to see the Church restore the Ember Days. Having worked with liturgical planning in parishes, I can see the pitfalls with this idea. We already struggle just getting people to Sunday mass, let alone holy days of obligation. Many pastors are overworked, burdened with congregations requiring special liturgies in different languages, weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms on Saturdays, and multiple liturgies on Sunday. Would they embrace a new set of days to make meaningful to the people?
However, this is an aquifer that might be worth tapping: at least the fall fast. It could be a time to recall our kinship with Jewish brothers and sisters, a time of thanksgiving as well as penance. If it fit in with the beginning of fall—which it does—it seems natural that we would make a shift in our liturgical year. I think we do, in any case, as our readings shift into a recollection of our sinfulness and of God’s mercy. Fall might be a time to mark with a special observance that would include changes to the liturgical environment—a nice fall arrangement, maybe even more of a fall-themed set of vestments or hangings. (My pastor purchased a separate set of sanctuary banners in green, but with a more thanksgiving design and color contrast.)
In many senses September does mark a new year, with school starting up, ending the season of vacations, beginning our religious education programs. We could bring this practical reality under the mantle of prayer and liturgy. We have a source here that could well bring life to our church year if we but dig the well and allow ourselves to be watered anew by this ancient stream.