For Jews there is no more solemn and holy day on the calendar than Yom Kippur, the biblical Day of Atonement. While God required the children of Israel to individually repent and make atonement for their sins on a regular basis, Yom Kippur was the one time every year when the entire nation came together as one to corporately ask for forgiveness.
Whereas our modern society focuses on the individual, biblical society was far more focused on the community. A person could be doing just fine in their own walk with God, but if the rest of the community was astray, it was still cause for mourning and collective repentance.
But what does Yom Kippur mean for Christians? As Christians, we believe that the sacrifice made by Jesus was the ultimate, final atonement for our sins. However, we are required to continuously invoke that sacrifice as we seek forgiveness from God for our daily sins. But what about our transgressions against one another?
Sharon Sanders, co-founder of the Jerusalem-based ministry Christian Friends of Israel, explains: "Jesus helps us to walk in repentance every day of our lives, not just Yom Kippur; but, seeking reconciliation with people we have wronged is a central theme in Judaism on this day and Christians are not exempt from this need."
Christians see the Church or body of believers in Jesus forms a single entity under God, and a growing number of Christians sees that entity as a grafted-in part of the House of Israel, a single spiritual family that started with Abraham.
If we are part of a larger community of believers, and more so if we are part of a spiritual family that includes the children of Israel, should we not set aside a time of corporate repentance when we eschew all else and implore the Almight to purify not only our individual hearts, but our entire community as well?
Dr. Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, believes the reason Yom Kippur observance is not more common among Christians has to do with the Protestant tradition of individual responsibility.
"The concept of collective repentance has been, until recently, quite foreign to most of Protestant Christianity," Cox explains in his essay A Christian Observes Yom Kippur. "The Protestant tradition, with its strong emphasis on the responsibility of the individual person before God, has not ordinarily looked favorably on these practices."
An Appointment with God
It is instructive to also remember that Israel did not invent Yom Kippur. A set aside corporate day of atonement was instituted by God Himself. It was His idea. Just as all the other biblical feasts, Yom Kippur is an appointment with God, made by God. Yes, that appointment was explicitly made with Israel, but it was implicitly made with the rest of us, as the relationship between God and Israel forms the blueprint of how He intends to relate to all mankind.
The growing movement of Christians connecting to the same biblical roots that have for millennia nourished Israel has been a source of blessing and comfort for many Jews. Especially after centuries of Christian persecution. Participating in the most holy day for Jews is a significant way of demonstrating love and support.
"It is a time to deny ourselves and pray for Israel and the Jewish people whom we love," says Sanders. "In a ‘bless me' world, fasting is saying ‘I am willing to give of myself' instead of receiving during Yom Kippur."
Don Stanley, the Director of CMJ-Israel, resides at Christ Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, and he is planning to fast on Yom Kippur. " I want to idientify with what is going on in the land and this is a time to reflect upon my relationship with God.", he told Travelujah. For Don, fasting on Yom Kippur was one more way for him to explore his faith. "We're all on a journey", he said.
Keeping on Course
But as with all things spiritual, observance of Yom Kippur should maintain a biblical course, rather than a "religious" one.
"If a Christian fasts on Yom Kippur it should not be done because it is a ‘Jewish' thing to do, but because of a truly repentant heart wanting to be cleansed," Sanders admonishes.
What about fasting?
The biblical passage dealing with Yom Kippur does not technically demand abstention from food. Rather, it calls for "afflicting the soul." Another way to interpret that passage is that we must "deny ourselves" as we seek to focus on God, and fasting is the most readily available means of denying ourselves.
"Fasting shows me that if I am truly serious about wanting to live a life of obedience and humbleness before my Maker, then it is not a religious thing for me, but rather a desire within me to join in a great congregation of those wanting to be righteous before a Holy God," explains Sanders.
Dr. Cox teaches that fasting on Yom Kippur is also symbolic of passing from life to death, and then back to life again.
"Why are we doing this?" he asks rhetorically. "Because there will be no eating or drinking...in death, and Yom Kippur is about sampling some of the qualities of death so that when we are allowed to live life again, it will taste even sweeter."
Dr. Cox also notes that "for some reason (which physiologists may one day explain), fasting does produce a kind of mental clarity, despite the headache."
Sanders concludes that while she doesn't "believe there is a hard and fast rule for Christians during this season," for those seeking a deeper connection to the Hebraic and biblical roots of their faith it should be natural to "want to join in and seek Israel's God on Yom Kippur."