Zelophehad’s Daughters

And the Evening and the Morning

Posted by Galdralag

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?

 

12 Responses to “And the Evening and the Morning”

  1. 1.

    Where I served my mission, there were many Seventh Day Adventists. It was very common to hear the missionaries criticize the members of this faith because their Sabbath was on Saturday. “That church is crazy. Did you hear they have church on Sunday?” or “They are weird. They think Saturday is Sunday.”

    Granted, missionaries are often an immature bunch and some lack a basic knowledge of other religions, but I always found it striking that they lacked an understanding of their own beliefs — if they believe in the Bible, they should know that Saturday is, in fact, the correct Sabbath day. I, admittedly, got way too much satisfaction in correcting some of them on this.

    I agree that church schedule creates a rigid thought process in people and, since it’s the “only true church”, many grow up without an understanding of what things really are … like the Sabbath.

  2. 2.

    *church on SATURDAY.
    Oh, dear. Never type on three hours sleep!

  3. 3.

    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

    Ha! That’s a good point, Galdralag. This seems like a great description of Mormonism to me. We’re very much bound by clock time rather than by any natural rhythm or cycle. I wonder why that is. Do you think it’s because the religion was founded after accurate clocks became widespread and people’s lives had moved more toward clock time, while older religions have centuries of historical precedent in their liturgical calendars and natural timekeeping?

    I have a Muslim friend who I work with who I remember when she was observing Ramadan last year, knew the time of sundown to the minute so she knew when she could be home and break the fast. I think that’s an interesting use of precise modern timekeeping to adhere to an older timing tradition.

    I think you ask a good question about how we might spice up the content of our meetings, but my imagination is failing me at the moment. Did you have particular things you were thinking of, or were you more pointing out that there’s no barrier to this happening?

  4. 4.

    Thanks for your comments, escc and Ziff.

    Re: missionaries being snooty about other religious beliefs – I hear ya. That happened on my mission all the time, too. I was really surprised by it, but I guess in retrospect it’s not too shocking that people who are actively proselyting would feel an us vs them competition with other religions.

    Ziff: I have a lot of thoughts about your questions, and I’ll come back later when I have more time to address the first half of your comment. In brief: I’ll have to track down the source again since it’s been a while since I read it, but apparently there was some talk among the early Utah Saints of adopting Jewish holidays.

    Re: the second half of your comment: I was more pointing out that there is no reason *not* to mix things up, but I suppose that if I’m going to go that far I should probably make concrete suggestions! One of the things that stood out to me about Jana’s article was the defensive comments it received. (I would have posted parts of the OP as a comment on her original article, but it got too long.) I found myself thinking that it’s interesting that many of us are so wedded to things like our sacrament meeting template, especially when I’ve been taught all of my life that part of Mormonism’s uniqueness is that there isn’t very much in the way of set liturgy, ritual, or practices (outside of the temple and the sacrament).

  5. 5.

    I liked thinking about this. Personally I don’t feel that our meeting style is inherently boring and uninspiring. However, I think in many contexts and wards it becomes expected and people live up to that low expectation. Speakers get little advance notice, teachers and speakers spend little time preparing, bishops let meetings run over into Sunday school or speakers use much more or less than their allotted times, thereby cutting off other speakers, hymns or musical numbers get cut or reduced showing that music isn’t valued, announcements run over lesson time showing that leaders don’t value the teaching, and so on.

    I also think that Teaching No Greater Call, which is talked about all the time in our stake, has to be one of the most colorless, uninspiring manuals ever (and I realize that is saying something). It is not that it does not have good stuff in it, but I think it is very dry, just like a lot of our classes. This is our training manual, and it is boring as h#%l. Is it any wonder our meetings are boring?

    I am very interested in your ideas for improvement, but I would say that for one thing it is incumbent on the leaders to set a different tone and expectation. But, it is hard because we let everyone speak, not just the compelling and interesting speakers.

  6. 6.

    “why shouldn’t we consider searching for ways to make our Sundays more celebratory, more reverent…?”

    I think part of the problem is that culturally, we’re kinda programmed to think that celebratory and reverent are polar opposites. I can’t tell you how few Sunday School lessons on reverence I’ve attended where someone did NOT say that the Baptists (and anyone else who shows a little bit of life in worship service) aren’t being reverent AT ALL. While the children sing, “Reverence is more than just quietly sitting,” they’re also taught that if you’re not quietly sitting you’re not being reverent.

    Even the Hosanna Shout – the one time we’re actually expected to shout in church – usually ends up being a Hosanna Mumble.

  7. 7.

    Ziff:

    Do you think it’s because the religion was founded after accurate clocks became widespread and people’s lives had moved more toward clock time, while older religions have centuries of historical precedent in their liturgical calendars and natural timekeeping?

    In short, yes. But I think that there are other complicated factors at work as well. An old, out-of-print book by Rudolf Glanz, Jew and Mormon: Historic Group Relations and Religious Outlook (1963), mentions that early Jewish travelers to Salt Lake discussed Jewish holidays with the Mormon leadership, and that apparently the latter were thinking seriously of adopting Jewish holidays. Glanz was unable to find any information about why that didn’t happen, but even today there are plenty of Mormons who participate in Passover seders (usually heavily redacted so that the haggadah only includes rabbinic teachings that dovetail with LDS norms).

    Even though Mormonism was indeed founded after mechanical clocks had become standard, that doesn’t necessarily explain why we didn’t appropriate holidays from other faith traditions. So much of Mormon doctrine and teachings are in dialogue with other religious traditions (e.g., Mormon doctrine about not baptizing infants is in direct conversation with Catholic and other Christian teachings on this subject) that I think we could easily have borrowed or adopted or modified other religious traditions relating to time. I’d like to research this more.

    Still, I think it’s true that we were founded recently enough, and our theology is undeveloped enough, that we often don’t readily distinguish between broader American cultural norms and our religious tradition (constant rhetoric on the Church v the World notwithstanding). One more example of how our tradition times itself according to the modern atomic clock (also, incidentally, something I realized after a Jewish friend asked me about it): when New Year’s Eve falls on a Saturday, Mormon congregations don’t schedule New Year’s parties. Ringing in the New Year requires staying up past midnight, and if you stay up past midnight on Saturday to party you are breaking the Sabbath. Ergo, Mormon Sabbaths – and by extension Mormon concepts of when the day begins – are based on the atomic clock, and on modern concepts of the day starting at midnight rather than sundown or sunrise.

  8. 8.

    Thanks for the additional detail, Galdralag. This more general point you made:

    Still, I think it’s true that we were founded recently enough, and our theology is undeveloped enough, that we often don’t readily distinguish between broader American cultural norms and our religious tradition

    is really interesting. It seems like there should be lots of stuff we could find that would be evidence of that. One example that might fit is that anti-evolution arguments in the Church, which seem to be borrowed wholesale from other Christians.

  9. 9.

    Mike C:

    Personally I don’t feel that our meeting style is inherently boring and uninspiring.

    I agree. I’ve lived in some wards where I’ve loved the weekly Sacrament Meeting lineup and have consistently left feeling refreshed and uplifted. And I agree completely that it’s frustrating when music gets cut, especially since many people find music to be their way of expressing and experiencing spirituality. This ties in with RickH’s comment:

    I think part of the problem is that culturally, we’re kinda programmed to think that celebratory and reverent are polar opposites. I can’t tell you how few Sunday School lessons on reverence I’ve attended where someone did NOT say that the Baptists (and anyone else who shows a little bit of life in worship service) aren’t being reverent AT ALL.

    Such a good point. It’s really too bad that we have such a limited idea of what properly reverential music is. I grew up in a music-filled home with many relatives who were musicians (opera singers and classical pianists on both sides), and I often came home after church to have my father put on various records and CDs of religious music and classical music – everything from Bach organ chorales to lively gospel numbers to brass ensembles. It took me a while to notice that we only listened to a limited subset of that music in church.

    I guess from this response it’s pretty obvious that the first thing I would do, if I had the chance, would be to expand our musical possibilities significantly, including adding more opportunities for songs, getting rid of rules prohibiting certain musical instruments, and letting the congregation stand during any and all hymns (sometimes you gotta stretch!).

    And, back to Mike C, I completely agree that we don’t value teaching and it’s a crying shame. I am particularly saddened that we don’t take better advantage of the considerable scholarly talent and expertise we have in the church. I’d love to hear Lynnette, our resident ZD Th.D., teach about Mormon theology. I’d love it if our manuals included more space for expanded discussion of both biblical and church history, especially since we have so many experts who could make the Sunday School experience genuinely educational. But these are things that I would find enriching. I’m interested in hearing other ideas from people who are moved by other things.

  10. 10.

    More engaging music would be great.

    My favorite Sunday ever was right after there was a huge flood in our stake. All church meetings in the stake were cancelled so we could spend the whole weekend wearing those Mormon helping hands T-shirts and helping people whose homes had been partially destroyed. Fortunately we don’t get a lot of these opportunities, but I think we could incorporate service into our Sunday routines. For example, we could serve a breakfast for homeless people in the community the second Sunday of every month. We could offer literacy tutoring during the second and third hours (all the Spanish-speaking returned missionaries could be a great resource). A youth class could routinely visit a group home for people with disabilities and make friends with the kids their age who live there.

    When I pass homeless on my way to church, sometimes I wonder if three hours of talking about the gospel is looking beyond the mark.

  11. 11.

    Still, I think it’s true that we were founded recently enough, and our theology is undeveloped enough, that we often don’t readily distinguish between broader American cultural norms and our religious tradition […]

    Yup.

    Ringing in the New Year requires staying up past midnight, and if you stay up past midnight on Saturday to party you are breaking the Sabbath. Ergo, Mormon Sabbaths – and by extension Mormon concepts of when the day begins – are based on the atomic clock, and on modern concepts of the day starting at midnight rather than sundown or sunrise.

    Hey now, let’s give credit where credit is due. Fast Sunday begins at sunrise, not at midnight.

    Also, even those who consider midnight the beginning of the sabbath usually don’t consider it over the following midnight. It’s midnight to sunrise on Monday if you want to follow the real unwritten higher order of the spirit of the law.

  12. 12.

    Thokozile:

    Love the service suggestions!

    Orwell:

    You’ve got me there. We do indeed build a hedge around the 24 hour Sabbath … which brings us right back to Ziff’s recent post on hedges! Truly the course of the blog is one eternal round!

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