(See Wikipedia for more information on Kol Nidrei)
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
You might wonder how I'm going to talk about the combination of the stoning of Stephen, a traditional Yom Kippur chant, and Easter all in one post. Read on!
The stoning of Stephen often gets pushed aside in the Lectionary because the Gospel reading for year A is what I call "The classic northeast Missouri funeral text"--the "In my father's house are many mansions" part of John 14. But I was gratified that it was a key part of the homily at Trinity on Sunday, and a lot of the clergy blogging crowd I read, seemed to choose the stoning of Stephen as the key part of their posts.
I always find it rather poignant that Stephen absolves the crowd who kills him, while Saul, later to become Paul, is "holding the coats of the mob." It's a reminder that sin usually does not have one sole culprit, and that even being one of the guilty, whether it's by commission or omission, does not exclude one from transformation.
As this passage was being read by our lector Sunday, for some odd reason Kol Nidrei popped into my head.
I remember the first time I went to temple for Yom Kippur with my pathology mentor and friend Mitch. I was still not really comfy with that "corporate atonement" thing, but I was absolutely captivated by the cantor singing Kol Nidrei. There was a beauty in its mornfulness.
As I got to researching it, to understand its purpose better, I discovered its origins were from the 8th century, and stems from when the Jews were being persecuted by the Christians.
You see, by then Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and they were forcing people of other faiths take oaths to be Christian. It was added to the Yom Kippur liturgy to allow the people to be released from these oaths for another year.
Although it is sung in Aramaic, I have provided an English translation below. First, this is sung three times (first softly, then louder each time)...
"All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."
Then the cantor and congregation say three times...
"May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault."
..."For all the people are at fault."
We never know how our actions affect other people. We don't know who incited who, when Stephen was stoned.
But, by the same token, we don't know who will help heal who in the resurrection of the spirits of others. What was it, that happened in that crowd that day, that eventually worked on Saul to lead to his conversion? We will never know. But all things work to good. Even bad things.
I think back to my own episodes of healing. So many times, the people I would have thought would have been key in it, actually let me down in one way or another, and new and unlikely heroes sprang up to fill the spot. I used to have a lot of resentment about the ones who let me down. But I also have come to appreciate I was not sensitive to how their own wounds played in that process. The wounds of the unlikely heroes were different wounds--wounds that somehow "meshed better" with my own, and created surprising new experiences of healing. I find that, as in the words of Kol Nidrei, I can find it in my heart to release them for another year. I am relying on the predictability of our liturgical calendar to do that. Part of resurrection--my own resurrection--is acknowledging grief, and over time, with more healing, more forgiveness occurs. It's a never ending process in some ways!
The other thing I've learned from the Kol Nidrei, is that there is a beauty in turning mourning into singing. I think that is part of what singing Taizé chants in the backyard does for me. When I call things by name--fear, darkness, death, etc.--in music, it feels like I can "tell it to God" in a deeper way. I have found that turning my tears into singing does something akin to Psalm 30--"turn mourning into dancing." It truly makes me want to strip off my sackcloth and be clothed in joy.
I have also learned