Today was a hard day. I was acutely aware of all the things in my life that I wish were different from the way they are. I have lists of things that I’m working on, and that I struggle with. Mostly that’s work that happens alone, the way it does for everyone. The weight of some of it is suffocating. I can stay there for hours, too. It’s not fun. At one point late in the day I noticed there were large swathes of blue sky above me. I’d been outside, and I hadn’t noticed. I missed the sunset, too. I know there was one. They happen every day. Catching a sunset can redeem a day.
I’ve spent parts of the last few days looking for flowers. I haven’t seen any. The shoots of the crocuses my neighbor plants around several trees have started to show, but only barely. It’s not enough. I need to be surrounded by the colors of Spring, to stand underneath any one of a number of magnolia’s and breathe in their fragrant scent. After this long winter, I’m ready for Spring, and ready for what I know it will do with me.
I want to talk about the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ, what Christians call the Atonement. I don’t intend to look at the different theories of atonement, about which there are many books. No. I want to introduce the sense of Jesus as the scapegoat who liberates us from the need for any other scapegoats. Is that two posts, or three? I’m not sure. We’ll see what happens. If I’m lucky I’ll pass along a thought or two that are helpful. As for tonight? Here’s something to chew on.
James Alison in a marvelous essay about atonement, is quick to point out that before there were theories of atonement, it was a liturgy.
“Now that doesn’t sound like too much of a contrast in our world because we tend to have an impoverished notion of liturgy. And we do not realise how much our dwelling in theory complicates our lives. That in fact having atonement as a theory means that it is an idea that can be grasped – and once it is grasped, one has got it – whereas a liturgy is something that happens at you.”
The contrast Alison offers is similar to the experience–and you’ve had this I’m sure–that it’s easier to work out in our heads all the reasons why someone is angry with us, than it is to ask them directly what is going on. When we do–or at least when I do–their responses are typically very different from the tidy theories that existed in my head. Alison, in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of the Hebrews of the First Temple–which the rite of Atonement dates back to–so that we can get past the “theories” about atonement that we already have in our heads:
“Given our modern imagination of such things, it might have seemed as though the purpose of the Temple was a place into which certain rather specially dressed people went in order to sacrifice to God, who dwelt mysteriously and invisible at the center of it all. Nevertheless that would have been a mistake. . . . The whole point of the Temple was that it was a microcosm of creation, because it was not a god who was being worshipped, but God the Creator. So the Holy of Holies [at the heart of the Temple] was taken to be the place of God “outside” of creation, and so outside of space, of matter. This was a “space” that was beyond place, prior to the foundation of the world, forever.”
The key point there is that our sense of the sacrifices at the Temple were a price that was being paid to God, owes more to our understanding of Aztec sacrifice than what’s in the Bible. The flow of that is backwards, that way of thinking says we’re trying to stop God. The rite of Atonement wasn’t a way of appeasing God, it was the opposite. It illustrated, if you will, the movement of God towards us.
“The key idea was that God. YHWH, would come into materiality, vesting himself in the flesh of the High Priest . . . who will become YHWH for the day, [and] come through the veil from the Holy Place, out into the court of the Temple and offer sacrifice on the Altar of Sacrifice–YHWH coming out of heaven towards us, as it were. And the purpose of this rite will be the happy occasion in which the Creator restores creation.”
In this way the idea of what’s happening is bigger than individual sins. People get stuck their sin. I did that tonight. Instead, the rite of Atonement is about God pulling us out of the muck, so that we can appreciate the wonder that surrounds us all of the time, if we would only notice it. Alison has a nice turn of phrase saying it’s “as though God were a divine Drano, coming in to clean out the sluice system from within and getting it all to flow open and out again.” The ancient rite isn’t fundamentally about sin, it is about God coming to us and unleashing our experience of the full potential of creation.