One of the reasons I became a Sunday School teacher (besides the money, of course) was it makes me a better Unitarian. Sure, I get more in tune with the church and if someone up there is keeping track, I’m sure I get a couple of celestial kudos every weekend I participate with the kids. Beyond that, it helps me because it actually forces me to learn more about my religion and religion in general. We wrapped up our Sunday School curriculum with a lesson on atonement and reconciliation. The UU church doesn’t have a formal way to handle these concepts. However a number of other religions do. The lesson plan suggested we mention Yom Kippur and the Sacrament of the Penance as examples. I would have been happy to… if I knew what either of them was.
I’d heard of Yom Kippur. I’ve seen it marked on the calendar and I knew Israel fought a war back in the seventies on that day. Other than that, I had nary a clue. Yom Kippur is celebrated by Jewish people (though “celebrate” might be the wrong word). God keeps tabs on their transgressions through the year and they have ten days – at the start with Rosh Hashanah – to get things in order before Jehovah puts it in their permanent records. Yom Kippur is the tenth day, the Day of Atonement, when they fast and abstain from all sorts of activities in an effort to settle their balance. In Israel, you can’t see movies or drive cars. They turn off the television and radio stations (which is why it was such a big deal when the war started on Yom Kippur in 1973).
I had never heard of the Sacrament of the Penance at all. It turns out to be what non-Catholics would call “confession”. I had seen that demonstrated on television, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated. Basically, a priest has been deemed eligible to speak for Jesus by the Catholic Church and is able to listen to someone confess mortal sins, make an appropriate measure of their conscience and suggest an act of contrition to perform. Once done, the confessee is absolved of their sins. I wasn’t familiar with the definition of “mortal sin” versus any other kind (I thought they were all pretty bad), but it turns out there are two main groups: mortal (the stuff you go to Hell for) and venial (the stuff you hang around in Purgatory for). That prompted more research on what – exactly – Purgatory was. So, three hours of research later, I was finally prepared for the lesson plan.
Often I’ve found that the more you learn, the more you realize there is to be learned. I was a little concerned walking into class, but – actually – everything went pretty smoothly. We played a game; I went through the lesson and spoke confidently about the Catholic and Jewish faiths. We added our last tool – a level – to the toolbox of our faith and called it a year. As I was cleaning up, my aide came up to thank me.
“I really enjoyed working with you,” she said. “I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about Yom Kippur before today’s class.” I could have just been gracious in my acknowledgment of her thanks, but that would have been the sin of pride. I don’t remember if that’s mortal or venial, but why take the chance? I confessed my ignorance as well and was granted secular absolution after my recommendation of Wikipedia.