It is worth repeatedly emphasising the point, echoing William Blake, that the Western Christian doctrine of ‘Atonement’ — rooted in Augustine of Hippo, Anselm, John Calvin — is Satanic. The way in which Christ, as the son of God, is portrayed as ‘atoning’ for human sin to the angry father God, by taking the punishment humans deserve and which God has almost gleefully reserved for them, is so totally false, it is beyond repair. This doctrine misunderstands God, Christ, sin, and atonement itself.
Satan the Accuser is ‘the case for the prosecution’ against the human venture; his nit picking legalism, and his harsh judgementalism, are such as to render untellable the real story of Christ as the ‘advocate for the human venture’ whose sacrifice has regenerated us, giving us a second chance in a depth where the first chance ended in ruin. The Cross is a deed of love, and the drama it enacts is a drama of love. ‘No greater love has any man than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ Even Jewish Atonement does not fully plumb, or fathom, this ultimate mystery of dying for those we love.
Western Atonement, however, is far smaller than Jewish Atonement. It is false not just in its teaching, but more importantly, mean, narrow, hateful, in spirit.
It has to be acknowledged that not all Western Christians believe in the Western Christian Atonement in its most ugly form that occurs amongst the fundamentalists; some have tried to water it down; some have tried to ignore it. Hopefully the majority of Western Christians feel and intuit the drama of divine love for humanity that is implicit in the Cross, even if they have no language for talking about what they see with their inward eye. At stake is what it really means that Christ died on the Cross for humanity. What does his sacrifice mean? Is it only about human sin? Is there a divine retribution coming to humanity for our sin? Does Christ suffer this repayment for sin aimed at us, so we are let off the hook?
Or are all these traditional beliefs not just in error, but Satanic in William Blake’s sense that they read into the greatest and deepest deed of love ‘for’ humanity a scenario marked by fear and mistrust verging on the superstitious, moralistic and judgemental condemnation, vengeance and hate thinly disguised as a legal and juridical necessity.
We have to go back to the ancient Jews to get a less twisted account of ‘Atonement.’ Then we have to go even deeper, to excavate, by digging and delving, the true meaning of what is new in the Cross of Christ that is not present even in the Jewish Atonement.
In the services of Passion Week, this is declared: “Mankind is not made for destruction.”
Jewish Atonement is healthy, whilst the Western Christian doctrine of Atonement ostensibly raised on its base is sick.
The Jewish Day of Atonement is a festival held on the tenth day of the seventh month. As everyone knows, in Hebrew it is called Yom Kippur. It is described as a day of soul searching and heart afflicting, a day of painful self-examination. The Jew on this day is made hyper conscious of the need to amend their life and deeds, in order to be reconciled to God and reconciled to the community. If we really confront our sin, all the glamour and rationalisation surrounding it falls away, and we see we are living a lie, and realise this lie divides us from God and divides us from the community, leaving us in a state of ‘separation’ rather than ‘connection.’ Being sorry about what has gone very sour engenders the impulse to want to rectify it. It is not that we want ‘to get in the right’ so as ‘to get out of the wrong’, rather, we want to make things right. To amend means, to free from faults, ‘to restore to a sound, or healthy, state after decay, injury, or destruction’, as one Jewish writer puts it. Amending things means a transformation of attitude, or stance, for the better. We call this, a ‘revolution in soul’, or ‘a change of heart.’ Its aim is to reform, to improve, not as any end in itself, but to return to relationship with God, and to return to relationship with the community. It means, to stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution.
The whole issue is not about how good or bad we are as an isolate individual, but what togetherness we have intentionally or unintentionally destroyed, by ‘thought, word, or deed, wittingly or unwittingly’, as the Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer just before Holy Communion puts it. Sin exerts its power of separation until we receive forgiveness from the people we have harmed, and grant forgiveness to the people who have harmed us. For the most loving ethos of this holy day is the acknowledgement that ‘all have sinned’, no one is without sin, and thus everyone is in the same position of needing to be forgiven and needing to forgive.
There is a tacit optimism in all this sorrowing over what has been spoiled. The impulse to want to reassemble the shattered fragments expresses faith that what has gone astray can be mended. This is not the fundamentalist view that regards sin as so powerful, only the most unilateral divine means can surgically remove it, with human willingness making no contribution to this removal. The Jewish view is that people can turn over a new leaf, and grow in love, righteousness, wisdom, despite being ‘a great sinner.’ The Old Testament provides countless examples of such a process of ‘conversion.’ Confessing our sin to Yahweh allows God to take the leading hand in overcoming it, but we play a part in this, and the outcome is we are helped to live with a renewed integrity.
Thus at the end of Yom Kippur, every Jew regards themselves as ‘absolved’ by God, returned, reconciled. They are able to start again. This is far from the Satanic belief that we are so sunk in sin that no seed or spark of new growth in goodness remains alive in us.
People fast and pray on this day. It is a day of rest, no work is to be done. Wearing white clothing symbolises purity. In reality, the entire wrestling with sin is a process of purification. The day before, two feasts are held, and charity is given. The fruit of repenting and mending is a more forgiving, less condemning, attitude toward human failure: “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.”
No one is spared being ‘in fault’, yet it is because all are in fault that all need forgiveness. Thus sin, with its exclusivity, is overturned by a new inclusivity. We are all part of the problem, we are all part of the solution.
To want to make amends, to seek to make reparation, for what one has done that is harmful, is the original and still valid meaning of ‘the action of atoning.’ Atoning follows from repentance. If you are genuinely able to perceive the harm you have done to people who matter to you, then you humanly want to ‘make it better’, because you want to restore the relationship with these people. Atoning in the one who has done harm can then be matched by forgiveness in the one who is harmed, and thus they can reconnect, and live in accord. Among the Jews, it is clear beyond dispute that the day set aside for repenting and atoning, and asking for forgiveness, was aimed at the restoration of communal ‘sobornost’, as the Russians call it. Sinful actions broke apart the community in its binding of human to God, and broke apart the community in its binding of human to human. Sin thereby threatened to tear to shreds the whole covenant of Israel with God. The key to the truer meaning of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, is that this spiritual trinity constitutes the means to preserve ‘togetherness’– the people’s togetherness with God and the people’s togetherness with one another. The primal meaning of sin among the Jews is that it is a way in which people lose togetherness with God and lose togetherness with each other, by lapsing into egoic, selfish, individualistic, modes of action that seek individual advantage at the cost of communal disadvantage. The injustice that Yahweh will not tolerate in any humans, but especially in his chosen people, is precisely that situation where the individual, or a small group of individuals with a vested interest, work against the togetherness that constitutes the very rationale of ‘justice.’
Justice recognises that we live together, need to be able to depend upon each other, and thus everyone must carry their weight, and make their contribution. You carry burdens for my sake, I carry burdens for your sake; each of us, and all of us, pay for the benefit of living together. Sin means I put my burden down, and so you must carry it; or you put your burden down, and so I must carry it. But sin also means some people ‘organise’ this human interdependence such that they can hugely profit from it whilst others hugely lose out from it. This aspect of sin is betraying the neighbour, but in doing that, we also betray God, for it is impossible in a more fundamental sense to love God and betray the neighbour, or to love the neighbour and betray God. Love of God and love of neighbour are flip sides of the same coin. Loving the neighbour is loving God, and loving God is loving the neighbour. A mysticism cut off from social concern is not Jewish. St Maximos briefly summarised this double necessity of love, suggesting that sin against God blocks union with him, by putting self-love in the place of love’s ex-stasis, whilst sin against neighbour tyrannises over him, by putting self-will in the place of love’s co-operativeness. However the heads and tails of love is expressed, the foundation of Jewish religion is that both the mystical and the social are bound together.
People are sorry for betraying togetherness in its double meaning toward God and toward neighbour, want to repair the torn threads, and ask for forgiveness, out of love. When the Western Christians start speaking of ‘right and wrong’, and God keeping accounts of our score in how many times we hit the target of right and how many times we press the bell of wrong, then you know you are in the territory of the Satanic Anti-Christ. In this sulphurous place there is no love– no love for God, no love for neighbour, and instead of ‘dealing with sin’ to restore and hence increase love towards God and increase love towards neighbour, you get a sort of individualistic, and moralistic, race in which each individual is trying to amass gold stars, and avoid black marks, in their copy book. It becomes a competition, the aim being to outdo your fellows in how much rectitude you can attain, while they slide down the slippery slope of wrongfulness. ‘Jesus loves me, and hates you’ is the title of an actual Country and Western song from the fundamentalist parts of America.
But there is more to this high-jacking of Atonement by the worshippers of the Satanic Judge and Jury.
It’s when the Latin mentality confuses atoning with ‘expiation’ that the real trouble starts.
To expiate means ‘to make satisfaction’ in a legal sense. There is a wrong, and it creates an injury or offence, and so that injurious offence or offending injury, must be ‘satisfied’ by some kind of payment by the offending or injuring party. They must ‘repay.’ The repaying mollifies the injured or offended party, by ‘making up’ for the injury or offence. The repayment required from the injuring or offending party might be money or property of some kind– to ‘compensate’ the harmed for the harm you did; or it might be punishment of some kind– you hurt someone, so you must be hurt in return; or it might be loss of some kind– you caused someone to lose something precious to them, so you must lose something precious to you. Tit for tat. The scales of legal justice are rebalanced. Order is restored.
Though this is normalised, and rationalised, as ‘only fair’ — it is fair that if you do wrong, then you must be wronged in some similar way in order to put it right — it is in reality our human demand for vengeance. We resent the wrong doer, and so in demanding their wrong be put right, we want them to get hit just exactly as we got hit. This is merely ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ If that man violently attacked somebody, then he should be violently attacked– or its equivalent. You hit me, I hit you back. Quid pro quo.
The restoring of relationships with God and with neighbour gets not even a look in. This ‘demand for satisfaction’ is retaliation, no more and no less. If such a demand breaks any chance of ever restoring relationships that have been broken and need to be restored, so what? The glee of getting satisfaction far outweighs the joy of restoring relationship.
This demand for school ground fairness can become excessive, and grisly– we decide to hold the rapist down, and cut off bits of his anatomy, slowly and cruelly, making us in the end more sadistic and violent than the criminal was in their crime. ‘Pay back’ satisfies a primitive demand for parity, but if it goes overboard, we become no different to those we are punishing. Yet showing restraint in punishing them can mask the extent to which we would like to do to them what they did to us, or to someone we care about.
The demand for reward and punishment to be dished out to those who do right and those who do wrong is at best a four year old child’s notion of justice, and at worst, it is an outer legal form that contains an inner revengeful substance. ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’ is dismissed. ‘I came not to judge but to redeem the world’ does not register. Legalism and judgementalism, answering the child’s demand for fairness, are opposed to redemption, in process and spirit. It was legality and judgement which sent Christ to the Cross.
But worse is to come. Expiation also means ‘to appease’, ‘to propitiate.’ This tells the other part of the ugly Satanic story. Appeasing or propitiating takes the place of atoning, or putting it differently, atoning is distorted, twisted, degraded, into appeasing or propitiating God. This is fearing, rather than loving, God, and it precludes any genuine repentance or honest sorrow for one’s harmful actions, on the one hand, and it precludes any authentic impulse to make redress or repair the damaged situation, on the other. All people who feel they must appease and propitiate their ‘god’ are in exactly the same dire spiritual and psychological state of superstitious terror as the Near Eastern pagans the Jews came out of through Abraham. You fear what your capricious and dangerous tribal deity will do to you, and so to keep them ‘on side’, you kow tow to them, and give them whatever they demand as recompense for you getting out of step with them, and rousing their ire. This is a ‘transaction’, virtually a trade-off– I will do X [whatever you demand, ritual or moral], if you will do Y [spare me from your retribution]. There is no personal relationship to God when he must be appeased and propitiated; there is no love for God, no trust in God, no faith that God ‘chastises those he loves.’ He warns them not to continue down a road that, however superficially attractive, is deeply toxic; he also shapes up those he roughs up, as the Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis realised, when saying that he liked the times in his life of suffering, trouble, trials, because they showed that God had faith he could pull through, and was seeking to strengthen him. Tough love toughens our sloppy and lazy ways with all the relationships that matter — to God, to others, even to ourself — and readies us for our calling to the wider world.
Consequently, whenever the language of expiation replaces atonement, and instead of making reparation to restore relationship, we appease and propitiate, kow towing to an authoritarian, non-personal and non-loving, tin pot dictator masquerading as ‘god’, then Satan has arrived, and Christ is far away.
The very worst is when the priest acquires ‘unique expiatory power’ to intercede for the people with the deity threatening to tear them apart for the things they have done to stir up his anger. This makes the priest a special figure, above the people, with authority over them, and high status in a religious hierarchy of power.
Such a priesthood is rooted in fear of a deity that cannot be related to personally and lovingly; the relation to the deity is not reverent yet trusting, rather, it is suspicious and basically superstitious. I fear what I don’t know, and fear what the unknown will do to me. Only if there is someone who knows the necessary rituals, objects, charms, that can fend off what could happen will I be safe. This someone is the priest. Only he can perform the rigmarole for keeping the unknown sweet. So, I will do whatever he says; after all without him I, and everyone, would be exposed to who knows what divine terrors.
This is precisely how the pagan priesthood of the Near East operated. The priest is the only one who has the magical skills necessary to appease and propitiate the unpredictably angry deity upon whom the tribe depends for protection, fertility, and other tangible benefits of day to day existence. Thus only he can ‘intercede’ for the people with this local god. Should a priest refuse to be the necessary ‘go between’, the common people might very well end up getting the full blast of divine disapproval.
Hence, just as expiating is not atoning, equally false is the claim that any priest has the unique power to atone for people. Without his intervention on their behalf, the people would be rejected by deity.
Certain words become so perverted, they cease to be useable; ‘intercession’ is such a word. It has acquired all the superstitious and magical baggage of pagan priesthood. It means that the priest is necessary, because without his intercession, there can be no getting the people off the hook. They cannot get themselves off the hook. Only the priest can intercede on their behalf, so they do not have to pay an outrageous price for whatever wrong they have done to an unapproachable supernatural being.
No Jewish priest intercedes in this sense. Nor does the Eastern Orthodox Christian priest. Rather, he ‘stands in’ for the people, representing them in all ritual action conducted in the sacred ceremonies. If the people do not attend the ritual, the ceremonial action cannot go ahead. The priest has only three roles: a sacramental role, a teaching role, a pastoral role. To impute anything else to any priest is error.
Even the Jewish High Priest — Kohen Gadol — who goes into the sanctuary of the temple only once a year — the Holy of Holies — is not ‘interceding’ in the usual Western Christian sense. It is true no one else can enter the holiest place, and he must ritually cleanse himself to do this. But this is a mark of respect, of awe, for the place where Holiness dwells. It once dwelt on a mountain, now it dwells in the temple’s inner most sanctum, symbolising the invisible world of heaven and spirits, while the outer part of the building symbolises the visible world of materiality and humans. The temple is being purified, at its mysterious core, to make it a fit vehicle of the coming, or showing forth, of the heavenly king and all his hosts of spiritual beings. The High Priest receives this vision, and it makes his face shine, like Moses’ countenance shone coming down from the meeting with God on Mount Sinai. Even the confessing of sins, privately by the congregation, and publically by the priest, is not only ‘returning to God’, but is a cleansing of all the people so that they too can share in the vision of God enthroned in heaven, and surrounded by his kingdom.
This vision of the heavenly and spiritual realm above, invited to dwell in the human and material realm below, so that any breach between them is overcome, is the real point of Yom Kippur, and there are, according to the investigations of Margaret Barker , a number of Biblical passages where the light of God that is disclosed to the High Priest and all the people he represents, has transformative, even transfiguring, effects on those who behold it. This light from above raises what is below; it heals; it beautifies; it enlivens; it bestows mystical knowledge; it ‘saves.’ “Yahweh is my light and my salvation” [Psalms, 27, 1]. “In the light of a king’s face there is life, and his favour is like the clouds that bring the spring rain” [Proverbs, 16, 15]. “Let us walk in the light of Yahweh” [Isaiah, 2, 5]. “Lift up the light of thy face upon us, O Yahweh” [Psalms, 4, 6]. “Yahweh will be your everlasting light” [Isaiah, 60, 20]. “Send out thy light.., and let [it] lead me, let [it] bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling” [Psalms, 43, 3]. David describes seeing the beauty of Yahweh, and seeking his face; the radiance, and glory, of the light is the face of God which shines on all those who see it. The same link between life and light is made by St John as regards Christ= “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” [John, 1, 4]. St Paul echoes the same theme= “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another” [2 Corinthians, 3, 18]. The one who sees light reflects it, becoming a mirror in which it can be seen by others.
Yom Kippur recognises that the people’s collective sin blocks off the light of God from living in their community, and throws them all into a darkness without life, beauty, healing, mystical knowledge. In short, people must be fit to receive this presence of the divine, and if they are sinful, then they are ‘not in place’ where it can get through to them. Isaiah reiterates this point in a number of ways; through him Yahweh declares: “They seek me daily.. as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God [that calls them to do righteousness]” [Isaiah, 8, 2]; “Your sins have hid his face from you” [Isaiah, 59, 2]; “We look for light, and behold darkness” [Isaiah, 59, 9]. Yet Isaiah also expresses the hope that the light, and the glory, of Yahweh will return to the restored city [Isaiah, 60, 1-2].
David sums up this mystery of the Holy of Holies at the core of the temple= “Let thy face shine, that we may be saved” [Psalms, 80, 3]. There is a double meaning in this. On the one hand, the light is obscured by sin, yet on the other hand, the light also delivers us from sin. An equation exists here, which is Eros, the right hand of God: Vision—Life—Light—Beauty—Knowledge—Salvation. This light protects against the human experience of ‘darkness’ [absence of divine illumination] wherein there is blindness, sickness, distortion, ignorance, and unrecognised and unopposed demonic power playing on human fallibility to guide it into ever more pronounced ‘wickedness.’ We stagger around in this darkness, ‘not knowing what we do’, as Christ said of all of us who crucified him; we bump into things, with hardly a glimpse of ‘what is what’, becoming constantly victim to ‘what is not what.’ We live in fantasy, and are asleep; we are in denial about and unawake toward reality. The coming of divine light — the light that enlightens every person who enters this world, says St John in the fourth gospel, implying the accuracy of the Buddhist teaching that we are inherently enlightened, but lose this over the course of our life — dispels the human experience of confusion, illusion, and deception; this light has the power to suddenly, and immediately, overcome any darkness we are caught up in– yet without repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, there is no vehicle in us, as in the temple, to retain the light as not merely a wondrous visitation, but a permanent and unfolding indwelling.
It would seem that repenting of sin, wanting to make amends for it, forgiving those who have sinned against us and being forgiven by those we have sinned against, are the real ‘mirror’ that reflects the radiance of the divine light in the human being; this human bravery and generosity about our most diminished and shameful level of being is what opens us to the eternal. The logic is paradoxical= the lowest will be made high. If we had more courage about facing up to our sin, we would discover what the holy day of Yom Kippur secretly teaches– that this facing up is what restores God’s bright countenance to our face. This process gives us peace, calm, repose, and helps us reach that stillness and silence of the inner being that ‘waits upon God’, like the wise virgins awaiting the bridegroom coming in the night with their lamps well-oiled so they can be lit at the moment of his approach.
This is what is really at stake in acknowledging our sins, against God and against the neighbour: whilst dedicated to sin, being unwilling to curb it, struggle with it, battle to shed it as much as is possible given our limited human strength, we make our body and soul an ‘unpurified temple’ where the light as God’s presence cannot dwell. To the extent that ‘my sin is constantly before me’, as David puts it, and I admit its seriousness as blocking out the light, so I allow a process wherein the whole human being is becoming the temple of the Holy Spirit. But the very word ‘purity’ can be twisted, and come to carry multiple Satanic meanings, such as ‘all sex is impure’, or ‘all aggression is impure’, or ‘the body is impure and the soul is pure.’ We should sweep all such pollutions aside, and understand that impurity is simply like a pipe becoming so clogged up, living waters can no longer rush through it. When God indwells us, as light, life, beauty, knowledge, salvation, then the true function of sex as vehicle of the divine, the true function of aggression as the vehicle of the divine, and the same with everything, is revealed.
The worship of the temple, and the priestly function that co-ordinates it, is to do with bringing people back to the divine light, through dis-attachment to their sin, and re-attachment to the light in its ‘accessible’ presence. This process of returning to God, through the overcoming of sin, is ‘salvation.’ This is the positive meaning of ‘God saves.’ In being saved, we are dragged out of what is dragging us down; we are pulled out of human and demonic darkness into the light of God. We are yanked out of deadness and returned to life; we are placed in a transformative, and developing process, wherein our sickness is being healed, our distortion is being beautified, our folly is being made wise. Ignorance of the spiritual is being converted into spiritual knowledge. The self-inflicted suffering, which Buddhism describes so perceptively, is being transmuted into simple happiness, and overflowing joy. Our former viciousness, malice, nastiness, has become kindness, gentleness, compassion. Where before, as a child of darkness, we were toxic to everyone and everything we touched, now as a child of the light, we are benign. Having been vindictive, we cease to do hurt.
We are saved from what is destroying us, and returned to the source that gives us all the gifts and glories of our existence when we are enlightened, sound, whole, firing on all cylinders, ‘safe and secure’ in being grounded in reality, not chasing unreality.
Psalms, 25, 8= “My children, what do I require of you? Seek me and live.”
Wisdom, 11, 23= “You have mercy upon all; you condone the sins of men in order that they should amend.”
At no point is there any hint in all this that the High Priest is uniquely and magically skilled in mollifying Yahweh, who is all too ready to turn against his people because he can no more ‘tolerate their sins.’ The Jewish High Priest atones with the Jewish people in bringing to Yahweh their sincere sorrow for destroying relationships, their surviving hope in the repair of relationships, their humble request for forgiveness for the damage done to all and sundry by the harming of relationships. These things are so crucial, because they bring down, and bring back, the light, and they also move human beings towards the light, raising them and returning them to where they will be in a position to mystically enter the light’s living presence, and be radically altered by this.
The High Priest is a lightning rod, for collecting the light and the people in oneness around it, but the aim is not to forever huddle in the temple, enjoying its sacredness as the symbolic and physical vehicle of God [the soul and body that houses the Spirit]; on the contrary, the aim is to take the light back to the community, to plant it there, so it can infiltrate all walks of life, all everyday activities, all human deeds that deal with the ‘pragmata’ of existence, the things we must be concerned with all the time. This is why it is vital to come to the temple, to relight the light, yet equally vital to leave the temple, so the light can be spread through-out the community. We leave the world to enter the temple, we leave the temple to return to the world. This is the necessary two-way rhythm of breathing in and breathing out that governs worship.
There is no implication that a one-day ritual absolves us from struggling with these matters for the rest of the year, and indeed, for the rest of our life. Yet in reality, sin is cleared out of the way so Yahweh can be re-enthroned, in his presence, his glory, his light, in the soul of the temple. Sin drives the presence of God away, whilst repenting, atoning, forgiving, brings the presence of God back.
This is the main concern of Jewish Atonement.
In fact, some commentators claim it is the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, whilst Moses was away on the mountain, that is the real transgression of the Jewish people in their entirety that is being pardoned on the Day of Atonement. Perhaps all sin stems from two sources, in a Jewish context= violating communal solidarity, and idolising ‘false gods’ that are more reassuring instead of having faith in the mysterious God whose light comes and goes, waxes and wanes, as we are nearer or farther from it. Later, a third source of sin arises, and is existential. However, whatever the source, all sin blocks Yahweh’s ‘coming with power.’
Sacrifice plays a basic role not in removing sin entirely, but in reducing its pervasive impact, in order to allow Yahweh’s hidden presence to be revealed.
The High Priest performs a ritual symbolising the sacrifice involved in making effective the spiritually necessary trinity of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, by which we draw closer to the light. Letting go sin is letting go jewels precious to us which we falsely cling to, as well as smashing idols important to us which we falsely worship. For us, in our human limitation, this is a definite and real sacrifice. It is hard to do, it costs us sweat and tears. The animal blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies by the High Priest shows our commitment to making amends — in Jewish ritual, the animal symbolises humans, while the human symbolises spirits — and our willingness to undergo the ‘death’ that loss of sin puts us through, that we may know rebirth in the light. The sacrifice we make is agreeing with the protracted process of losing things we thought were the very definition of abundance, fulfilment, satisfaction, victory, and allowing all these to be inverted, so that what we thought was life proves to be death, and what we thought was death proves to be life. This whole inversion of our normal being is a considerable sacrifice, a kind of dying, a real letting go. The clenched fist, trying to grab onto so much, becomes an open hand.
The High Priest is not doing this sacrifice ‘for’ us in the sense of doing it instead of us, absolving us from doing it, but is rather doing the sacrifice ‘as’ us, with us, and in that very different sense, the priestly role is to ‘offer’ our cry to God, our crying for what we have done to separate ourselves from God, and our cry to God to come back, not abandon us, but return to dwell in our midst, becoming the light by which we see God and see each other. David: “In thy light do we see light” [Psalms, 36, 9]. We are asking God not to allow our rejection of him to become his tit for tat rejection of us; we are asking God, be bigger than us, and giving God permission to break the cause-effect chains that close us in. And because we love God, have faith in God, have trust in God, so we know that God will not retaliate, giving ill for ill, and neither will God keep score, and remember our sins, insisting on punishing us for error. Metropolitan Anthony once said, if your child is run over in the street, you don’t go out there and kick him because he disobeyed you, you tenderly pick him up and minister to his injuries.
Thus, odd as it sounds to us in our normal condition, the blood of sacrifice is like a medicine, curing the root of sin, in its self-love and self-will.
The High Priest does not intercede with God for the rest of the people; rather, he offers our crying, which contains our yes and no, our half in and half out, to God. Sacrifice, in the priestly or temple context, is self-offering. The animal blood symbolises the life we offer to the process of weaning life from death, which feels to us like surrendering life to death. We offer our self to the self-transcending that gives away, or sacrifices, self-love, yet seems like losing all ecstaticness in love; we offer our self to the self-disempowering that gives away, or sacrifices, self-will, yet seems like losing all sovereignty in love.
The High Priest cannot make this sacrifice instead of us; there is no magic in what he does in the ritual that would absolve us from doing the same in our entire life. He is ‘appointed’ to stand in for us in the ritual, and as such to ritually symbolise the sacrifice involved in our returning to Yahweh and sharing Yahweh in the community. None the less, in so far as he cannot do this sacrifice for us, so it follows that his ritual action on its own has no point, or efficacy, if the rest of the people are not struggling to live the ‘sacrificial offering’ in their own lives. This means that the High Priest and the ordinary people are interchangeable. Since he is representing all of them in the Holy of Holies, he is not more holy than them. If the High Priest suddenly died before the ritual was completed, any member of the assembly of people could step into the breach, to replace him. He is one of the people, and there is nothing that separates the High Priest from the people in their absolute ordinariness.
In Flamenco, the singer cries what the audience watching him are ‘really’ crying in their own existence. Because of this, they encourage the singer, by shouts of ole and hand clapping in rhythm to his feet pounding the earth. He carries something of them to God, but he can only do this because he is one of them, not different to them. Yes, he has talents and training needed for his job that the audience may lack. But they could learn these, and if he were suddenly absent and the performance of the singing had to go on, anyone truly represented by him could step into his place, and do what he does.
This is true of the High Priest in the temple.
It might seem obvious that the High Priest, admitted into the sacred and innermost core of the temple where no one else can go, must be more purified than the ordinary people, but again, this is only true ritually and not true existentially. Outside the ritual, the High Priest is a sinner like everyone else, and if he only makes sacrifice ritually and not in his actual manner of living, then he may end up a greater sinner than everyone else, due to deception.
But that is not the point. The point is, if the High Priest were elevated above the people, then we might describe him as not only intercessor for them with God — as if God will not listen to his people, and will only listen to his priest — but also a mediator between God and them in a very literal sense. This is untrue as well. ‘Mediator’ is a more corrupted term than ‘intercessor.’ All its connotations are misleading. It also bestows uniquely special authority and power on the priestly function that it does not, and should not, possess. From intercessor you get a hierarchic priesthood, and from mediator you get popes, chief ministers, and the like, including Orthodox patriarchs. You might as well regard the persons fulfilling these grand roles as ‘angelic lords’ in our midst. The wrong doctrine of priesthood, including that of the High Priest in the temple, robs priests of their human grounding, and recasts them virtually as angels. ‘Angelizing’ is a heretical tendency encouraged by misunderstanding what priests can, and cannot, do.
The gravitas attached to these intercessors and mediators impedes and obscures the priestly calling, rather than clarifying and facilitating it.
A priest is a more homely figure, and this is his virtue. What he is offering, as the representative of the people, is the people’s sacrifice. Again, only love illumines what is going on. It is like this. I am your friend, and I know you love God but your prayer to God is blocked, so I go to God and plead for you. I know this guy, I say to God, he is one of yours, and he is also one of us, therefore ‘remember him in your kingdom.’ If the priest is anointed and consecrated for his role, and in it does something that the people cannot, this is simply to cry to God day in and day out, even when the people lose their voice, and their crying becomes blocked in their throat. The priest is no angel who has deus ex machina descended from God, to lord it over us for our own good; rather, he is exactly like us, in all respects, except that through his anointing, through his consecration, God has helped and empowered him to speak up for us in the heavenly kingdom, God has enabled him to be our advocate, pleading for us, and crying day and night when things are so hard for us, we cannot even cry any more.
The priest is like those children who, already at the age of 3 and 4, are liked the best by the group of other children because they look after everyone more, show more empathy and understanding for their fellows. The rest turn to this particular child, knowing they will get a hearing. In a similar way, the people turn to the priest, knowing they will get a hearing with him, and that he will go before God insisting they all get a hearing from God. A priest who really loves the people can go to God, and refuse to take any No from God, insisting on a Yes, for all of them. This is the real meaning of ‘what you loose on earth and bind on earth will be loosed and will be bound in heaven.’ The priest inspired by this kind of love, says to God, if any one of these people goes down, I go down with them, because I will not let any of them be lost in finality. A priest can even fight with us, when we have given up on ourself, refusing to give up on us. This love is what priesthood is really all about, and it clarifies why the sacramental, the teaching, and the pastoral aspects of the priest’s work all fit together organically. A single purpose undergirds all of these things.
It could be countered that if the people could always cry to God, plead to God, speak to God, for themselves, the priest would not be necessary. However, realistically, it is part and parcel of our long battle with sin, and the sacrifice it asks from us, that we are often without voice, cannot pray, cannot ask for help. Given the power by God to do his job, the priest always, at least in the ritual if not always in his life beyond the ritual, raises a voice, can pray, can ask for help. And will God not listen? God withdraws sometimes to give more space for us to grow in the very love he is trying to seed in us. However, when the priest offers sacrifice, and prays, with the people, as the people, God sits up and takes notice.
A good priest is worth his weight in gold. He symbolises, and activates, that love of God which motivates us humans to love other humans, to a point not only of repenting, atoning, forgiving, among ourselves, but even to the further point of sticking together through thick and thin, and loving each other inclusively, without exclusion, such that if one human gets in bad trouble, another human steps up to pray for them, plead for them, minister to their illness, and if necessary, carry them until they can stand on their own feet again– or should they be permanently crippled, then carry them as long as they live. The priest is the communal love, the Eros for one and all, that keeps us all together in God.
God does not play fast and loose with us. When we love like this, he is impressed, and adds to our smallest step for love a thousand giant strides, to give impetus to our intention and honour our effort.
Priests who think themselves ‘commissioned’ by God to be specially and uniquely elevated angels condescending to ordinary humanity, to lift the poor dears above their lowly station, are scoundrels who need to be exposed in their arrogance. Ironically, these are the ones who will always be the first to sell out to the bourgeois spirit that destroys the Eros of community in God. From Angelizing theology to pig whose snout is first to the feed, is a short, and natural step.
What unites priests and people most radically is that, at a certain point, God says to the Jews, stop making the sacrificial offering in ritual; what I require from you is not this symbolic ritual, however powerful its impact, but an existentially real ‘broken and contrite heart.’ God says this to David, to underscore what the ritual ‘really’ is for all humans. When our heart is broken, and it is contrite, we have ceased trying to run our life by our own lights, and at last surrendered our being to God.
When our heart is broken, and it is contrite, we have — all of us, personally and communally — completed the Day of Atonement.
In this sense, once outside the ritual, everyone is a priest, men, women, children, no different. The priestly function is a basic calling from God to all of us, without exception, and with no one favoured over anyone else in executing it [1 Peter, 2, 9].
The Day of Atonement is complex, inherently. It has many aspects, which are never the less all of a piece. Yom Kippur is a kind of condensation of the key points at work in our ‘being saved’ by God. David’s brief statement that ‘God’s light is our salvation’ is a shorthand for all these necessary elements.
The light is in actuality Yahweh, the king of heaven, and his heavenly kingdom, coming down to us in order to raise us up, by lifting us out of the doldrums in which we are drowning; we co-operate with this process by what we give up, but this sacrifice pales into insignificance compared with what God gives to us. It is ‘grace’ because it is gracious and gratuitous, a free gift, a free offering, with no strings attached, no hidden penalty clauses, no reservations, no conditions. Ultimately, all we really have to ‘do’ is want the light that enlightens us, which means giving ourselves over to it, offering our life to it. This mutual self-giving and self-offering is the mysterious dynamic at the centre of temple worship, and the mystical high point of the Day of Atonement.
The priest’s ‘sacrifice’ in the ritual of worship is sacrificing our sins, to offer the people to what God is offering the people.
Thus, Yom Kippur is not just moral and ascetical, it is also sacramental and sacrificial, symbolic and metaphorical, visionary and mystical. Its aim, and process, is ‘salvation.’ This is not just saving us ‘from’ sin, but saving us ‘for’ a new life in which we die to human deadness and are reborn in the aliveness of the Spirit.
We are saved from sin in order to be saved for God’s kingdom.
It is Luciferian to under do sin, like religious liberals, and Satanic to over do sin, like religious conservatives. It is certainly misleading, and dangerous, to stress only what we are saved from, and ignore what we are saved for. What we are saved for is a more wonderful and awesome reality than the unreality we are saved from. People who get too caught in the bewailing and bemoaning of sin focus on the ‘saved from’ and lose the ‘saved for.’ They are too heavy and guilty. This is unhelpful. Equally off the mark are people who think access to the light can bypass grasping the nettle of human resistance. They are too light and guiltless. They believe they can just float up to the light; or doing a few yogic exercises will get them up the ladder of ascent to the divine. This is equally unhelpful.
None the less, what we are saved for exceeds in significance, by far, what we are saved from, and preoccupation with the latter should not become what blots out the former. From a repenting heart we move into the joy of God. A light weight joy is not real, but unremitting doom and gloom is stuck.
Saving, or salvation, in old Gaelic carries the same connotations as it does in Greek and Latin, with some very illuminating nuances. Salvation is ‘slanu’ and saving is ‘sainmhinui.’ The saved condition means ‘soundness, completeness, wholesomeness, health.’ Indeed, overcoming sin is more a ‘healing’ than merely a moral correction. Saved also means ‘free, released, delivered’; and at least one Gaelic term has the explicit double meaning that to be let out of the prison of sin is to be ‘united’ with God. This is Yom Kippur in a nutshell. Salvation is also related to the act of ‘glorifying’, or appreciating the ‘renown’ of the saving agent; non saving agents fall in our esteem as the saving agent rises in respect. Salvation is a state of continuous conversion from prison to glory, an ongoing ‘seeking’ or ‘pursuit.’ Salvation implies ‘freedom from care’; its opposite is ‘suspicion and mistrust.’ Salvation is for ‘the benefit of our friends’ souls’, it implies friendliness between saving and saved. Salvation is ‘offered’, it is gift; no one can earn it by their effort alone, though to receive the gift may well ask an effort from the receiver. We cannot demand a gift, or presume we have a right to it. The spirit of salvation is Give Away, as an act of love, concern, outreaching friendliness. Salvation is also seen as God’s protection encircling the world, like the arms of a lover embracing the beloved, firm as a ‘chain.’
“Thy reproach of us can never be so high that the tree of our salvation will not be higher still.”
This is the full equation of the Eros that saves us from our unloved and unloving condition: light—life—beauty—joy—knowledge. All these are the Tree of Salvation, ‘the tree of lights’, as one writer has called it. The tree shines in human and demonic darkness, and the darkness cannot extinguish it.