I’ve been thinking about annual cycles of religious festivals – For Christians, the church year goes like this: Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost – All Saints – and back to Advent again. Most of the festivals are focussed on Jesus – his life, death and resurrection.
This Sunday, 22nd November is the final Sunday in this church year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new church year. This last Sunday is called ‘Christ The King.’ The idea is that the culmination of the year should focus on the completed work of Jesus before the story starts all over again.
In the Jewish faith, there is something very similar that must be the inspiration for the Christian tradition. In Judaism however, the cycle is all about the reading of Torah. Torah is The Law of Moses – the first five books of what Jews call ‘The Bible.’ and what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ or ‘The Jewish Scriptures.’
This cycle of readings is completed in a year, and as in the Christian tradition, there is a special day that marks the end of the year, and starts the new year. In Judaism this is linked to the feast of Sukkot, which is a kind of harvest festival, and takes place around October.
There is a wonderful description of this festival – Simchat Torah – in the book I wrote about in my last post. The book ‘In the Beginning’ by Chaim Potok. Here’s the quote.
I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.
The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]
The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”
I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?
Wow ! I could almost feel the sense of celebration. Joy and awe all mixed up and expressed in the dance. An exuberant, intense display of fervour and devotion.
And I asked myself the question that in the novel David asks of the Roman Catholic neighbour of his childhood – Do I ever dance with my Bible ? Or to put it another way – does our celebration of Christ The King have this same sense of being alive in our faith. Maybe it’s the fact that we English / Church of England are so reserved and unemotional that stops us ? Or maybe we just don’t have the same passion about our faith ?
There will be no dancing this year, as our chuches are closed for public worship due to Covid, but maybe next year ….
Grace and peace.