Look Out! Holy Days Are Coming

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources including the wisdom of the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.  This is an aspect of our way of faith that is both compelling and confusing to people who are not Unitarian Universalist.  “Why are you promoting your own competition?” they ask.  Simply put, this is a house of truth-seeking.  Just as we honor the truth we find in science and modern prophets; so too, we honor truth that has been captured for ages in the words of the ancient authors and sages.  Or, as Forest Church put it, “We draw inspiration from other religions as well as our own. … We celebrate a wide variety of festivals in an attempt to divine the essential meaning of each.

While I was growing up in the Unitarian Universalists Sunday School classes, I was taught the religions of the world in a respectful and engaging manner. I remember liking the Gods of the Hindus; they were so plentiful and seemed so full of color.  Many were depicted smiling, which was appealing to me.  I would like to believe in a smiling God.  I remember learning about Buddha and Lao Tzu and Confucius; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed.  All of this was offered to me as a young person in the religious education program of my Unitarian Universalist congregation.

And perhaps you know (or have guessed by what I have said so far,) the Binghamton Unitarian Universalist Congregation also offers this information about the world’s religions to our young people during Sunday School.  Our Sunday School program is designed in a four year rotation, each year focusing on either Unitarian Universalist identity, our Judeo-Christian heritage, World Religions, and Ethics and Social Justice.  This year our children are offered the focus of World Religions.  Each class approaches the topic in a way that developmentally appropriate for their age.  For example, the Junior High class is using a curriculum entitle “Neighboring Faiths” which includes opportunities for the class to visit other places of worship.  I remember doing this sort of thing one year, and anticipate the young people in our Junior High class finding this to be quite a unique experience.

In some ways it is too bad they can’t just jump in immediately.  They need to do preliminary steps of choosing which religions to study and then make contact with each faith community to schedule a visit and then have a session where they learn about the tradition before finally going to visit.  I certainly appreciate the careful necessity of these steps, but it’s too bad all the same because this weekend would have been a wonderful opportunity for our young people to experience the holiest days of both the Jewish faith and the Islamic faith.  Every thirty years, roughly, Rosh Hashanah and the first days of Ramadan occur on the same day or within a day of each other.  Most of the time, these two holidays are no where near each other in the regular calendar; but for this year they are.

Both the Islamic calendar and the Jewish calendar are based on the lunar cycle of months lasting 28 or 29 days each.  The result is a 354 day year, which is 11 days off from the solar calendar year.  The Islamic calendar makes no attempt to equalize the difference, thus Muslim holidays are about 11 days earlier on the solar calendar each year; over the years, Ramadan begins in the fall, in the summer, in the spring, and in the winter; and when it returns to fall the dates will, of course, not match up again with the dates from the last time Ramadan begin in the fall.  In other words: a given Islamic date, say the First of Ramadan, will coincide with a given Gregorian calendar date, say September 24th, once every 32 or 33 years (depending on leap years.)  The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, does make an effort to equalize the difference between the lunar and solar cycles.  Several of the Jewish holidays hold seasonal significance, so ever three years of so, the Jewish calendar adds a lunar month, a leap month if you will.  This means that for three years the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of Ramadan coincide.  We are currently in the second year of this holy coincidence.  For the fourth year, however, the Jewish Calendar adds its extra month, pulling Rosh Hashanah back into what we call October, while Ramadan continues its trek into early September and then late August and on.  The two holy days will not coincide again like this until over thirty years from now.  And the most recent time when this had happened in the past was the early 1970’s.

Rosh Hashanah, year 5767, the anniversary of the creation of the world, begins at sundown of what the Gregorian calendar calls Friday, September 22, year 2006, and which Jews call the first of Tishri, being the seventh day of the Jewish lunar calendar.  The traditional greeting for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is “Shana Tova: (shah-NAH toh-VAH) Happy New Year!”

The holy month of Ramadan, the anniversary of when Allah started revealing the Qur’an to Muhammad, his prophet, begins on what the Gregorian calendar calls September 24, today; and which Muslims call the first of Ramadan, being the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar.  The traditional greeting during this month is “Ramadan Mubarak: (RAH-mah-dahn moo-BAR-ahk) May God give you a blessed month.”

The last day of the Ten Days of Awe on the Jewish calendar is called Yom Kippur.  It is a day of reflection and repentance.  One of the techniques used to enhance reflection and understanding of repentance is fasting.  Many people celebrate Yom Kippur by taking no food or water from sunset to sunset.  One author writes, “In ancient Jewish tradition fasting had two primary purposes.  The first was to express personal or national repentance for sin. …  The second purpose of a fast was to prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.”

Muslims spend the entire month of Ramadan in daily fasts from sunrise to sunset.  Each morning before the sun rises the family will eat together, and when they return home in the evenings they beak their fast with a family meal.  They do this for the entire month of Ramadan.  While fasting is beneficial to physical health, the purpose for Muslims is self-purification and self-restraint.  One author writes, “By cutting oneself from the worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person focuses on his or her purpose in life by constantly being aware of the presence of God.”

Fasting is a spiritual practice common to many religious groups.   Many who fast do so with moderation and find it to be a significant time of reflection on that which sustains us spiritually in the way that food sustains us physically.  Both Rosh Hashanah (with Yom Kippur) and Ramadan are times of fasting for the adherents of those faiths.  It is also a time for deepening ones connection with and understanding of the faith tradition through worship, study and service.  In particular, Muslims strive to be polite and respectful, and to put an end to past disputes during Ramadan.  It is a month for Muslims to purify their bodies and their minds.  So, too, with Rosh Hashanah, Jews are to repent of injuries they have caused, to seek forgiveness that they may begin the year with a clean slate, with their names inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me these wars surrounding Israel, Palestine, and now Lebanon violate not only a few of the specific restrictions, but also the spirit of these two holidays.  I’m pretty sure putting an end to past disputes and repenting of injuries you have caused means not starting new disputes or causing new injuries!  I’m pretty sure it means not killing each other!

There was a rather logical letter to the editor a few days back in response to the Popes unfortunate, though probably intentional, choice of quotes concerning violence and the religion of Islam.  The pope’s use of the quote sparked a violent response among some Muslims in the Middle East.  The letter to the editor from a few days back said, “We have “peace-loving” Muslims burning churches and committing other violent acts to impress everyone that they’re non-violent.” (Marge Christenson; Press & Sun, Thursday, 9/21/06; A10)  And that is a cynical way of putting it, but it’s true.  In yesterday’s paper there was an article about Ramadan featuring Imam Kasim Kopuz of the Islamic Center of the Southern Tier.  Imam Kopuz’s comment about Pope Benedict XVI’s quote is that many Muslims found it offensive, but a proper Islamic reaction does not include violence.  He didn’t say a proper Islamic response during Ramadan does not include violence.  He said a proper Islamic response would never include violence.  So, in response to that letter to the editor, ‘No, we do not have “peace-loving” Muslims burning churches and committing other violent acts, obviously!   We have angry, aggressive groups using religion as an excuse to vent their anger and aggression in violent, destructive ways – undermining and perverting the fuller message of Islam.’  Oh, to be sure, the Qur’an and the Pentateuch, as well as the New Testament, each one of these holy books contains verses that can be lifted out of the fuller context and used to condone violence.  Any tradition can be manipulated this way.

Indeed there is a madness that has taken over may people in that area, a madness cloaking itself as righteousness – believing itself to be truly righteous.  Nations in the Middle East live in fear of each other and thrive on the anger and revenge the builds day by day as the violence continues.  And one of the great casualties is religion itself.  In too many situations the peaceful, forgiving, and repentant religions of Islam and Judaism are used as fuel for further violence.  Just as Christianity is used as a tool for hate at times by extreme fundamentalists who are more concerned with a political or social or just plain bigoted agenda; so too other religions are used by those who would do harm under the guise of being righteous.

Which is why the concurrence of these two holidays is an opportunity for hope.  With Jews and Muslims who are seemingly always at war with each other in the Middle East, we have now a moment when both religions call on the faithful to purify and cleanse themselves, to repent and seek forgiveness, to set aside old disputes and not to start new ones!  We have a moment when both sides are poised to engage in self-reflection.  What an opportunity, think of the possibilities if people of faith were to stand up and say “it is time for us to have peace.”

Well, it would be amazing if we were to read in the paper tomorrow that peace broke out in the Middle East over the weekend.  I am not going to hold me breath for it, though.  It’s not that I’ve given up, but I realize this work takes a long time.  I have been praying for peace and working for peace and striving with justice toward a world of peace since I could understand what that meant – and so have many of you.  It is hard to see opportunities such as this go by while hatred and greed and cruel apathy keep a grip on the reigns of power and the hearts of people.  It is particularly painful to see religion continually used to separate people; religion which is meant to bring people together, to provide hope, to help people reflect together and grow in understanding; religion which is meant to spread peace is used to fan the flames of war.

But I know that peace is built slowly, step by tentative step.  I know that the world is built up by little deed after little deed done every day by regular people like you and me. I know that even the simple acts of you and I reaching out to people in our own community can lead us to fuller understanding in the world.  While I see the world swept by greed and hate, the peaceful religions of the world co-opted into the structures of war, the hope for harmony among the nations lost and left behind; I also see possibilities that I know can serve to change a life.  I see possibilities that I know can lead people into deeper understanding.  When holy days appear together on a calendar and are honored; when children are taught about other faiths with respect; when people of goodwill gather, I continue to see possibilities that serve as the catalyst for new hope.  At this holy time, when many millions of people are called on to reflect, repent and seek peace in the name of their God; there is cause for hope.  May peace move through the people, allowing new life and renewed hope to again bloom within our hearts.  May it be for people around the world and may it be among us now.

In a world without end, may it be so.