Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began at sundown on the 18th. This is the gravest of High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar, one of those days that even people who rarely set foot in the synagogue make sure to get a seat ticket for. Not unlike Christians and Easter and Christmas, a Jewish friend assures me. It is very, very serious, and marks the time when men must examine their souls and apologize and make amends and atonement for the sins committed against G-d. Believers should have already asked forgiveness and apologized to other people they might have sinned against.
A modified form of this took the shape of one of the traditions passed down from Judaism through the Puritans and Separatists to the early United States. Secular and religious leaders would occasionally call for days of public prayer and fasting, often in times of war or other disaster. Other denominations followed similar practices, so it was often a relatively ecumenical event, focused on group repentance and group prayers to the Most High, asking for aid in times of distress and woe. The practice faded away after the Civil War, and I can easily imagine the shrieks and law suits that would arise if the president—current, recent past, or future—would ask for a national day of apology and repentance.
Germany, or at least some of the German states, keep an official “Bußundbettag,” a day of prayer, reflection, and apology to the Most High and to other people. I’ve never been in Germany at that time of year, so I don’t know how well honored the practice is. Given the complaints that have been raised about limitations on concerts and sales on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, I suspect it is nodded to and ignored by a growing number of people.
There are days, though, when I wonder if Christianity in the US might do well to consider something like a day of prayer and forgiveness. Not a day of service, not a day for people to gain social points by bewailing their ancestors’ failures to be modern and enlightened activists, but a day when we really stop and consider that fact that if we completely separate ourselves from faith and holiness and the idea of potentially eternal consequences, this world is not going to be a happy place, and the next… A secular version might not be a bad thing, if there were a way to prick the conscious without it turning into a political rally or the like.
For all its numerous flaws, Christianity (and certain aspects of Judaism) forms the foundation of Western Civilization, and contributed to a great deal of good and improvement in the world. Perhaps if we were to take a day as a people in order to consider the penalties of assuming that there’s nothing after this life, and of assuming that there are no penalties for doing whatever we want to ourselves and those we disagree with, we’d be a little more thoughtful and patient. Alas, secularism and anti-theism are jealous gods, and likely to object, vehemently, to the very thought.
To my Jewish Readers: May your names be inscribed in the Book of Life.