Fall comes quickly in the Pacific Northwest where I live. Even though it is the prelude to winter’s sleep-like death, one cannot help but marvel in the final vibrancy of nature’s yellows, oranges, and reds. The wind has a colder sheen that sends a chilly reminder of summer’s demise, and the rains that fall more regularly wash away the colors of late summer. I cannot help but marvel in the signs of the seasons and to pause in awe of autumn’s glory.
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 a chance to repent of sins before 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.
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 is rather ordinary. Yet examining the practices of my Jewish neighbors reminds me to consider each day as a day of awe and devotion. Jesus gave strong instruction to his listeners during the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. He expected that his followers would engage in on-going acts of devotion like fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. In giving instruction about how his disciples would fast he says, “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) In this same series of instructions, Jesus also assumes his followers will pray and give offerings for the poor. The issue is not if Christians will do these devotional acts, but when.
While Christians may have very different reasons, beliefs, and expectations from their Jewish neighbors, there is something to learn from others’ special seasons of devotion, which can enrich and even challenge our own. So often we neglect or altogether forget that our own acts of devotion should arise out of a loving response to what God has done on our behalves in Jesus. It is not insignificant that Jesus warned those listening to him: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day), you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”(2) Jesus warns that the very intention of one’s hearts should be drawn to worship and awe, and not simply by performing ritualistic acts of devotion. These acts must flow out of devotion to God and lead to gracious acts of love and mercy each and every day of the year.
While September is not filled with Christian holy days, perhaps it is possible to view every month as an opportunity for days of devotion and awe? The recent crisis of refugees in Europe presents a sobering reminder that days of awe and worship might come through serving 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 invite followers of Jesus to live out righteousness. His was a righteousness that offered healing, hope, and an open hand to all he encountered.
The turning of the leaves and the chilly fall air can point us to worship just as they signal the beginning of days of awe for the Jews. 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.
(2) Matthew 5:20.