I was in an anthropology class, studying Jewish ritual observances of the Sabbath, when the instructor asked a simple question: Why does the Jewish Sabbath begin at sunset instead of sunrise? It caught me up short. I had no idea.
It’s from Genesis, he explained, from the creation narrative. Look at the wording of the account of each day:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Genesis 1: 3-5)
Each day continues on with that same pattern – the evening and the morning are the second, third, and fourth days, and so on. Shabbat begins on Friday as the sun goes down because that is how days are measured in the Bible.
As he spoke I began thinking about Mormon ritual observance. We don’t time our worship to the cycles and rhythms of nature or the symbolic language of the Bible. We measure our observance according to the modern atomic clock: an hour and 15 minutes for Sacrament Meeting; 45 minutes for Sunday School; a full hour for Relief Society and Priesthood. We don’t have a distinctive liturgical year; unlike Jews, Muslims, and many other Christians, we do not set aside specific times of the year to celebrate and commemorate sacred events outside of limited, largely personal and familial celebrations of Easter and Christmas.
We celebrate the Sabbath according to the customs of the country: in Israel, Mormons attend church on Saturday, and in Muslim countries on Friday. Leaders in those countries explain that what matters to God is that we set aside one day in seven, not which day of the seven. (This, interestingly, is similar to the rabbinic take on the Sabbath: if a Jew is lost in the desert or at sea and no longer knows which day of the week it is, what matters according to Jewish law is that he or she set aside one day in seven to commemorate.)
Our formal religious education is similarly set according to convenience. In areas where the demographic majority is Mormon, many high schools have release time seminary. For people like me who grew up outside of the Mormon corridor, early morning is the only time we can easily squeeze seminary into our day. The hour itself has no symbolic or ritual value or significance.
This all ran through my mind last week as I read Jana Reiss’ March 8 article on stultifying Sacrament Meetings. Reiss describes repetitive meetings that invite a sense of grim and determined endurance rather than openhearted feasting upon the word of God. She notes that, unlike many other Christian congregations, Mormons don’t use festive language to refer to Sacrament Meeting. As I read her descriptions of yawn-inducing meetings and her plea for us to enliven our tradition, I found myself thinking that there is no doctrinal barrier to us doing precisely that. We have developed a cultural script of three-hour Sunday meetings following a specific template, but there is no pressing reason beyond the sheer power of inertia that we shouldn’t mix things up a bit. In other words, since we, unlike Jews and Muslims and many other Christian denominations, lack precise scriptural and doctrinal prescriptions guiding the hour, order, and to a certain extent – outside of the sacramental ordinance – content of our meetings (and our religious education and our liturgical calendar), why shouldn’t we consider searching for ways to make our Sundays more celebratory, more reverent, more capable of reaching and inspiring each other?