Tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and I am looking into the meaning of atonement. I am not concerned with the idea of atonement, its history, or its various definitions and uses. I want to know if, in fact, you and I can achieve atonement, and, if we can, how can we do so.
What is atonement? My Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the reconciliation of God and man through the death of Jesus Christ. Not much help there. In Hebrew the word atonement is kippur and carries connotations of ransom, koppair. We are held captive by our sins, and need to be freed from these.
In ancient times our ransom was paid in blood. Two he–goats were brought the High Priest on Yom Kippur. One was sacrificed to God as ransom for our sins, the other, called Azazel after the cliff over which it was to fall to its death was symbolically laden with the sins of the people and chased out into the wilderness (Leviticus 16: 6–22). With the fall of the Temple in 70 CE the rabbis put an end to vicarious atonement, and shifted emphasis from blood to contrition. Followers of Jesus stuck to the older Temple model and saw Jesus’ death as the final sacrifice. Vicarious atonement through death lingers in Judaism in the tradition of kapparot where hens (for women) and roosters (for men) are symbolically laden with your sins and then killed. The meat is given to the poor, who, I guess, are too hungry to think about the consequences of eating your sins.
Yet neither the death of Jesus, Azazel, or Big Bird, however, speaks to me. If someone has to die for my sins, it should be me.
I do find meaning, however, in the English word itself: atonement, at–one–ment— which I understand as unity with God the source and substance of all reality. Can we achieve at–one–ment? No. You cannot get what you already have: you are always and already one with God. Knowing this is humbling. Being humbled is liberating. Being liberated shifts your focus from achieving atonement to acting from it: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in, with, and as God.
So here is your homework (or shulwork) for Yom Kippur. Whenever you find yourself thinking about atonement, stop. Whenever you find yourself wrestling with matters of the spirit, indulging the desire to do theology and thus push What Is into the category of What May Be In The Future, stop. Stop worrying about your relationship with God, and start having godly relationships with the world.