Showing posts with label repentance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label repentance. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The New Year

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him. (Psalms 37:7)

Having just celebrated New Year’s Day on the Gregorian calendar, I am mindful of the variety of New Year’s observances in different cultures and religious traditions. Most mark the New Year in a particularly momentous way, whether solemn or festive. Interestingly, this is not the case for Christians who follow the liturgical Church calendar of the West and observe the religious New Year on the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks prior to Christmas. Neither a fast day nor a feast day, the first Sunday of Advent introduces a new cycle of readings from Scripture, ensuring that the complete Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Gospels, will be read in weekly worship over the course of three years. At Advent, church vestments mark the New Year with the color blue; one of four candles on an Advent wreath may be lit during the worship service, and hymns anticipating the coming of Christ, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” are sung. No fireworks on this day; not even great ceremony. The New Year comes quietly, as pondering hearts open to prepare Him room.

What special meanings and rituals are associated with the New Year in your faith tradition?

The New Hijri Year[1] also comes quietly with no celebrations or rituals associated with it. As a matter of fact, the concept of the Hijri calendar was introduced years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]. However, the end of one year and the beginning of another one remind Muslims that they should treat every day as an opportunity for reviewing their words and actions. It is also an occasion to remember that time is a gift one should treat with wise care, as illustrated by the Hadith: “Take advantage of five matters before the passing of five others; your youth before become old; your health before you become sick; your wealth before you become poor; your free time before you get preoccupied, and your life before your death.”[2] This is an appeal to us to take action and give thanks as long as we still can. For this reason, turning the page on another calendar year is seen not as a cause for celebration, but more as a chance for contemplation followed by righteous action.

Both the verse in Psalms and the Hadith evoke the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Like the Hijri calendar, the Jewish calendar we now follow is a later calculation of the early rabbis (1st century BCE-1st century CE), who also instituted many of the rituals of Rosh Hashanah—especially those involving reflection on one’s behavior and repentance of one’s sins during the previous year. Throughout the centuries, complex liturgical poems were added to the public prayers. Many of these poems describe the martyrs of previous generations, while others remind us that our lives hang in the balance as God judges our deeds. One example contains the haunting refrain, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed;” this refers to the fate of all those who will die in the coming year.  The month leading up to Rosh Hashanah through the ten days following it are known as the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which end with a full day of fasting and repentance on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  At this time of the New Year, we wait in stillness for God’s decree.

[1] The first year of the Hijri calendar is the year the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon Him] and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina. It corresponds to 622 CE in the Gregorian calendar.

[2] Narrated by Ibn Abbas in Musnad Imam Ahmad

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When We Don't Eat

"And when you fast, do not look dismal...anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
(The Gospel of Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting, specifically as an act of piety, is not commanded in Christian scriptures. However, Christians who observe periods of fasting do so because they find that fasting, together with prayer, is a private and deeply spiritual practice that draws one’s heart closer to God. The liturgical season of Lent[1] is a time when many Christians observe a partial fast, abstaining from certain foods, such as sweets and/or meat. Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday often involves abstinence from both food and drink for a period of 24 hours. Any time of spiritual struggle is an occasion for fasting; Christians are reminded that fasting is not simply about self-denial, but about heightened awareness of all who suffer.

I am moved by your spiritual practice of fasting, Grace, and intrigued by the text you have chosen from The Gospel of Matthew.  I had always understood these verses as part of a Jesus’ teachings about practical piety which emphasize private rituals.  Since the Torah[2] doesn’t specify how we are to “afflict our souls” on the tenth day of the seventh month, the rabbis[3] instituted rituals for Yom Kippur, including prohibitions against eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing and anointing with oil, and sexual relations.  In this context, I had understood Jesus’ teachings—particularly the instructions “anoint your head and wash your face”—to be a reaction against the rabbis’ public piety. Incidentally, the rabbis themselves often railed against overt piousness, which they viewed as arrogance.  They considered fasting to be a form of repentance and added numerous public fasts to the calendar to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They also prescribed communal fasts during times of drought to petition God, in His mercy, to send rain in its appropriate season.

Fasting is a central part of the Islamic tradition and one that I hold dear. One of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is prescribed during the month of Ramadan, the 9th lunar month.[4]  Similar to the Christian and Jewish traditions, the abstinence from food, drink, smoking and marital relations has many purposes in Islam. Fasting is one way to attain a heightened sense of God consciousness, by giving the “self” an opportunity to rise above its desires and allowing the soul to attain the virtues that adorn the righteous.  Some common practices that are encouraged during this month are giving to charity, strengthening family and friendship ties, intense reflection and repentance, and nightly prayers and reading of the Quran. Ramadan elevates my awareness of the mind’s power to fight temptation and helps me establish good habits.  I feel a profound sense of spiritual revitalization, as my gratitude, compassion and, most of all, humility are heightened when I fast.

[1] Lent is a 40-day period of reflection and penance, which begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Easter. Good Friday, the Friday prior to Easter when Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, is a day of atonement.
[2] Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7
[3] Mishnah Yoma, Chapter 10
[4] Quran, al-Baqarah 2:183-185