Fall comes quickly in the Pacific Northwest where I live. The wind has a colder sheen that sends a chilly reminder of summer’s demise, and the rains have returned. The apples are ready to harvest, even as their leaves begin to turn color and fade. There is still plenty of light and warmth to be outside yet, the fall marks the beginning of a more inward and contemplative season for me.
While colorful leaves and a colder wind signal for many the beginning of the new school year, the buying of school clothes and supplies, and the beginning of fall, for Jews, September is a very important month. It doesn’t simply signal the beginning of autumn; it is the signal to worship and to reflect on one’s life in the coming year. September holds two of the Jewish high, holy days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the original language, Rosh Hashanah means “new year” and Yom Kippur means “day of atonement.” What do these days entail for Jews? These are days filled with serious introspection, and an opportunity for repentance in preparation for Yom Kippur. The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of Repentance.
These “Days of Awe” are filled with wonder and worship, days of reflection, fasting, and prayer, days of solemnity and solace. These are days meant to set the tone for the beginning of the Jewish New Year even as they remind the faithful to reflect on what has gone before. Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people wronged during the course of the past year. These holy days are meant to orient the worshipper’s life through ritual and towards action for the coming year.
Reflecting upon these holidays practiced by a tradition outside my own, I realized that September may not seem a particularly holy month for Christians, but appears rather ordinary. Yet examining the practices of my Jewish neighbors reminds me to consider each day as a day of awe and devotion. Jesus invited his listeners, as he preached what is now called “The Sermon on the Mount” to live lives of devotion. “And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men.”(1) Using this same formulation for instruction, and whenever… Jesus assumes that those who respond to his invitation and follow him will pray and give offerings for the poor. The issue is not if these devotional acts are done, but when. In addition, Jesus understood that acts of devotion flow from a devoted heart, and from seeing one’s life as an ongoing act of worship—each and every day.
As I write, Rosh Hashanah begins this evening, and every fall I am reminded that there is something to learn from others’ special seasons of devotion, which can enrich and even challenge my own understanding. For those entering these Jewish days of awe, seeking reconciliation with God and with others flows from their observance of these days. Worship is not simply something done at a place of worship, but is an orientation of one’s life toward love for God and for neighbor. This vital connection of worship as devoted action challenges the tendency to view worship as simply connected to a particular day, a specific time or place, rather than allowing it to animate the whole of one’s life.
While September is not filled with specifically Christian holy days, are there not days of awe to be lived in September and throughout the year? The ongoing refugee crisis presents a solemn reminder that days of awe and devotion can be experienced in service to others. Refugees—whether they are arriving from the Middle East, Africa, or other parts of the world—are all around us. Lives disrupted or displaced, through addiction, broken relationships, or lack of opportunity, and those displaced from estrangement offer daily opportunities for followers of Jesus to worship. Days of awe occur when we live out righteousness, reconciliation and hope, for the Jesus Christians follow demonstrated a righteousness that offered healing, hope, and forgiveness to all he encountered.
The turning of the leaves and the chilly fall air can signal the beginning of days of awe. For followers of Jesus, there is always opportunity for perpetual “days of awe” rather than settling for unremarkable time.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Matthew 6:16; Matthew 6:2-5.