Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The communal dimension of repentance in Jewish and Christian liturgies
Communal Repentance In the Jewish Liturgy
The communal dimension of teshuvah is evident especially in the Penitential Prayers (Selichot), which are recited every day during the High Holy Days as well as during the preceding month of Elul. These prayers for forgiveness are woven around the "Thirteen Attributes" of divine mercy, following the Talmudic dictum that says: "There is a divine promise that no prayer in which these Thirteen Attributes are invoked will fall on deaf ears."
The idea of the "Thirteen Attributes" is based on Exodus 34:5-7. After the sin of the golden calf, Moses prayed for forgiveness for the people and asked God "Show me, I pray thee, thy glory". God answered his prayer and made known to him "all his goodness". The Lord came down in a cloud...and proclaimed:
Lord, the Eternal, is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgressions and sins" (acquitting the penitent).
Communal Confession of Sins
The recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes" of God's mercy is followed by the Communal Confession of Sins (Viduy). The liturgy of the High Holy Days contains two confessions of sins, the short confession and the long confession. The Confession is in the plural, reflecting the conviction that sin affects the entire community and implying the Jewish teaching of collective responsibility. "All Israelites are responsible for one another" says the Talmud. Each individual Jew is part of the one body which is Israel and the community takes upon itself responsibility for what is done in it. A purification, not only of individuals but of the whole House of Israel, is sought in these confessions.
Individual and Communal
There are two forms of the Confession of Sins in the Day of Atonement liturgy: one intended for the individual and one for the community. The Confession of Sins is recited ten times which recalls Temple Times when the High Priest invoked the Tetragrammaton (the ineffable Name of God) ten times when making the Confession on the Day of Atonement.
The Confession of sins in the Day of Atonement liturgy responds to both the personal and the collective desire for pardon. The individual receives forgiveness of her/his sins within the context of communal forgiveness.
When the community begins the silent confession, it does so without any introduction or preamble; it goes straight to the point: "Our God and God of our fathers...we have sinned and betrayed..."
In contrast, before beginning the second form of the communal Confession, the Leader introduces it with the public recitation of the penitential prayers. At the core of these prayers stands the proclamation of the thirteen qualities of divine mercy and these are prayed only by the whole community aloud, for it is not in the power of any single individual to approach God on the Day of Atonement and ask pardon for her or his sins.
On the Day of Atonement, personal pardon is attained within the context of communal pardon. Where the individuals within the community recite the short Confession beginning "we have sinned, we have betrayed", there is no place for a supplication for pardon. Here the community is aware of sin and experiences the pain of remorse. Only afterwards when the whole community prays the long Confession does supplication for pardon begin: "And for all (our sins) forgive us, pardon us, grant us pardon."
This order reflects a fundamental concept of the Day of Atonement and the covenant between God and the People of Israel at its root. Only after affirming the love and close relationship between God and the people, do the latter arrive at the communal recognition of sin expressed in the short Confession. Immediately after this comes the prayer:
Our God and God of our fathers, pardon and forgive our transgressions on this Day of Atonement and listen to our prayers, efface and remove from thy sight our transgressions and sins.
The pardon granted within the liturgy of the Day of Atonement is, then, both personal and communal. This affirms one of the basic teachings of Judaism which views every person from a two-fold perspective, as an independent individual and also as a part of a community, a limb of the body of Israel. In this regard, Maimonides teaches:
The Day of Atone-
ment is the time of
repentance for everyone, for the individual as well as for the multitude: it is the goal of the penitential season, appointed unto Israel for pardon and forgiveness.
In order to experience both types of pardon on the Day of Atonement, the individual within the community must fulfil two obligations. To attain pardon individuals must repent, acknowledge their sin, experience regret, resolve not to commit these sins again and confess their sins. In order to partake of the communal pardon the individual must be bound to the community; the stronger the bond, the greater the degree of acquittal through the mediation of the community. On the Day of Atonement there is a dual acquittal, both as an individual and as a member of the community, or there is no acquittal at all.
In summary, the communal character of the Day of Atonement expresses some basic teachings of Judaism. First, the format and substance of the liturgical prayers affirm the conviction that the Jewish people are committed by the Covenant of Sinai to serve as a communal witness to the Torah in the world. Wholeness and holiness are conditions of that commitment. If these are diminished, it is both a personal and a community breach of the covenant. Individual faithfulness is at the same time a contribution to the collective endeavour.
Second, the liturgical texts of the Day of Atonement affirm the Jewish teaching that sin distorts and diminishes the divine image in which every human being is created. Sin is "an estrangement of the human person from God", a breaking of the link between them. Sin creates a distance between the self and God. To sin means to remove oneself from the presence of God. Thus, the essence of teshuvah and the confession of sins is a longing to return to the presence of God.
Third, the liturgy of the Day of Atonement confirms the conviction that as sons and daughters of God, God will receive each human being with favour and forgive their sins as soon as they return to God. Thus a person can throw off the bondage of sin. The steps to spiritual renewal as the liturgy reveals them are: a consciousness that one has turned away from God; expressing sorrow for one's sins; confession of sins and making a solemn resolve not to repeat them; experiencing divine forgiveness.
Fourth, the structure of the liturgy of the Day of Atonement discloses that, according to Jewish belief, no priest or mediator is necessary in obtaining forgiveness; every human person receives forgiveness by genuinely repenting within the community and vowing to begin a new life of virtue and goodness.
Finally, the liturgy of the Day of Atonement emphasizes two teachings which flow from the Jewish principle of collective responsibility. On the one hand, the individual must seek to be reconciled with her/his neighbours before she/he can ask God's pardon. On the other hand, to pray as a Jew is to pray as part of a community, the community of Israel. The major prayers of the Day of Atonement, therefore, including the Confession of sins, are written in the plural. The language of the prayers represents both the individual and the entire community. Speaking as "we" the individual acknowledges, articulates the sins which are shared with all the congregation because each is not only a private self but a member of the whole community.
In conclusion the liturgy of the Day of Atonement lays stress on the communal aspect of teshuvah, while affirming its personal dimension. The liturgical prayers and practices invite the individual to enter into the experience of teshuvah as a member of the entire community. This confirms a fundamental conviction of Judaism: that a Jew never worships as an isolated individual but as a part of the community of Israel.
Communal Dimension in the Christian Liturgy of Repentance
In its reform of the Sacrament of Penance the Vatican Council wished to express its sacred and ecclesial character and its effect, which is reconciliation. It becomes clear from many of the Council Documents that reconciliation with God and with the Church are linked. (cf. Lumen Gentium,11; Decree on Priestly Formation, 5 etc.)1 The social dimension of every sinful act, as of any good deed, is stressed and the whole community plays a part in reconciling sinners to God. This is in accord with a fundamental principle of the renewal in the liturgy in Article 28 of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
Liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church (and consequently) whenever the particular character of the rites suggests a community celebration with a congregation present and actively taking part, it should be stressed that this sort of celebration is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration of them by one person alone, as it were, in private.
Thus one of the main concerns of the Second Vatican Council was to recapture the community spirit of the early church and to express the public and communal features of the sacrament. This communal aspect, which had been forgotten, was rediscovered through the biblical and liturgical reform movements of the early twentieth century and became the focus of the Council's deliberations about the sacrament of penance.
The New Rite of Reconciliation
After a thorough study of the history, liturgy and doctrine of the sacrament of penance, a New Rite of Reconciliation was officially promulgated in 1973. The name of the sacrament was changed from "Penance" to "Reconciliation". Though the word "penance" is the title of the new ritual, the sacrament is basically understood not as "penance" but as reconciliation with God and Church. The term "reconciliation" emphasizes the social and ecclesial dimension as well as the reciprocity of the encounter between God and people and among people. The term "confession", a means of self-purgation and purification is generally used in the new ritual only to allude to part of the sacrament, not to the sacrament itself.
The new rite, which began to be implemented in 1975, represents one stage of a long historical development. This latter is reflected in the three forms of celebration, included in the new rite - individual, communal and communal with general absolution. Form A (the rite for the reconciliation of individual penitents) reflects the tradition of private penance that spread widely in Europe after the beginning of the seventh century. Form B (the rite for the reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution) and Form C (the rite for reconciliation of several penitents with general confession and absolution) recall some of the features associated with the public canonical penance practised in the earlier centuries of Christian life, in particular its emphasis on the communal aspect of sin and forgiveness. The new rite is a kind of "mosaic" shaped out of the diverse ways through which Christians have sought for and received reconciliation at different moments in history...
Forms B and C are intended to be a communal celebration of the reconciliation of sinners to the church and to God. The community is united in listening to the Word of God. It is knit together by the people's common awareness of their own sinfulness and their need for God's mercy. They are reminded that all persons are constantly summoned by God's Word and each bears responsibility for the other and the community is engaged in a never-ending process of conversion. Everyone in the Christian community is in some way wounded by sin and in need of healing; everyone is weak and needs strengthening.
Forms B and C of the new rite seek to recapture a sense of sin as a social reality. Sins may be secret but they are never private. The communal forms bring the community together and provide the people with the opportunity of understanding that sin does truly affect the whole community. Any virtue or vice of the individual either raises or lowers the moral tone of the community. This reality is made present in communal reconciliation...
There is an increase today in people's global awareness and social consciousness. Communal celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can give expression to this. Both Forms B and C can arouse in participants an increased sense of their interconnectedness and of their renewal as individuals and as a community.
The Contribution of the Jewish Liturgy of Teshuvah in Revitalising the Sacrament of Reconciliation
The social dimension of sin and forgiveness is vitally present in the Yom Kippur Liturgy. This theme is rooted in the Covenant between God and Israel, which is fundamental to Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition reveal the close relationship between God and the people of Israel which is sealed by a Covenant which affects their dealings with each other. This relationship with God challenges them to realize that sins against the neighbour are also sins against God. Central to this covenantal faith is the sense of peoplehood, of salvation in and through the community. Hence the recognition of the need for confession of sin and forgiveness in a communal context when they disobey God's law or harm one another. This is integral to Jewish tradition and self-definition.
This strong social sense of sin and forgiveness in Judaism could help Christians to become aware of this dimension in their own faith. For some years the Church has struggled to comprehend the connection between God, sin and one another. At times during its history the Church tended to emphasize the individualist, private character of sin and forgiveness. A clear example of this is seen in the emphasis on private confession in the Roman Catholic Church. The sacrament of reconciliation, communal at its core, is meant to be a symbol in the Church of its belief that people are saved in a communal context. Yet this symbol, unlike the confession of sins in the Yom Kippur Liturgy, to which it has certain links, degenerated into a private "I-God" activity. It may be said, therefore, that for a period of time the Church "forgot" to give concrete expression to the social and communal dimensions of sin and forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Historical evidence confirms that for centuries the understanding and liturgical celebration of the sacrament of penance focused on the purification of the individual from the stain of sin. Unfortunately the Church distanced itself and cut itself off from its roots in the Jewish tradition where forgiveness involves reconciliation with the person or persons affected by the sinful action rather than inner purification. Lack of contact with Jewish and Rabbinic viewpoints on communal repentance for many centuries undoubtedly contributed to a distorted emphasis on individualism.
This process began to be reversed with the twentieth century biblical and liturgical movements and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of the motivations for change came from the Church's awareness that renewed contact with biblical and Jewish tradition could help to overcome this long-standing tendency toward privatization of sin and forgiveness. In effect the Council chose to give a major focus to the communal dimension of repentance. Moreover in recent years it has become a strong component of Roman Catholic Sacramental Theology as reflected in the writings of a number of prominent theologians.2
The revised rites enable Catholics to rediscover the value of the communal and social dimensions of sin and forgiveness and to experience a renewed encounter with their roots in biblical and Jewish tradition. The communal rites, in particular, resonate with specific aspects of the process of repentance in the liturgical experiences of their Jewish sisters and brothers.
1. Walter Abbott, ed. The Documents of Vatican II, (New York: The American Press, 1966).
2. cf. James Dallen, The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance, (New York: Pueblo, 1986); Ladislas Orsy, The Evolving Church and the Sacrament of Penance, (New Jersey: Dimension Books, 1978); Monika Hellwig, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion: The Sacrament of Penance for Our Times, (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1986)...Peter S. Fink, Alternative Futures for Worship: Reconciliation, Volume IV (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1987).