Atonement Homily

The assignment: Drawing from the doctrine of atonement expounded by Anselm, Aquinas, and Dr Margaret Turek’s Atonement, you are to give a homily on this subject to adult parishioners.

JMJ

GOD HATES SIN. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable claim for we are aware that we sin although, perhaps, we tapdance around that awareness so as not to disturb ourselves much. Because God loves his creation and because sin has marred the beauty God gave us he has destroyed the power of sin to destroy us. This is the doctrine of atonement.

That word, atonement, may make us as uncomfortable as a discussion of sin. This discomfort may be related to the same tapdance of avoidance though: only if we are sinners do we need atonement. Pope Benedict has suggested that we trivialize sin and thus downplay our own need for redemption – and so we also trivialize the action of Christ on the Cross.  (Atonement, 13.)  

Today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart opens up our meditation on Atonement as an act of love. Let’s take a look at the alternative prayer offered by Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer (Vol 3, p. 639)

Father, we honor the heart of your Son
broken by man’s cruelty
yet symbol of love’s triumph,
pledge of all that man is called to be.
Teach us to see Christ in the lives we touch,
to offer him living worship
by love-filled service 
to our brothers and sisters. Amen.

We’ll move through bit by bit. 

The heart of your son, broken by cruelty

The cruelty mentioned in the prayer is our rejection of God. That rejection is sin in its totality. There may be individual sinful actions, but sin is a rejection of God and the love and dignity he offers us (Atonement, 51, 89ff). We are made for God and we only find our full happiness in him. Sin is any attempt to find or root our being elsewhere. Sin wounds us and our neighbor, but all sin is, primarily, a rejection of God. Any step away from that fullness – our proper end – is sin because we step away from God himself. (See also, Catechism  ¶1849, ¶1850). Sin is real. This rejection of love is the cruelty spoken of.

God allows us to experience the results, the natural consequences of our sin (Atonement, 52). We suffer a loss of God, of a proper relationship with others and the world, and – eventually – we suffer death. Even these consequences wound God who wants so much more for us. 

St Anslem starts us on this journey, asking “Why God Became Man?” Seeking to explore answers to Jewish and Muslim critics in his day (late 11c). In our rejection of infinite love, we incur (and continue to incur) an ongoing infinite debt that corrupts even our attempts to repay it. Anselm teaches that it required a human person to pay our a human debt, else humanity would have been beholden to whoever paid for us. Yet it needed to be God who did so because it was an infinite debt and only an infinite God could have paid it. So, uniting God and Man in himself, God the Son dies on the Cross to pay the debt of all humanity. In this action, he purchased us for himself and we are beholden only to God – as it should be. We can most clearly see the wounding of God’s heart on the Cross, and yet we can see something else as well. We need to see deeper into this action than just “purchase”: for in the act of atonement on the Cross, indeed the entire Incarnation, God the Holy Trinity has done something unexpected (Atonement, 130)

The Church sees love’s triumph in the Crucifixion. Even on the Cross – where we “did something to God”, it was a death by his own initiation, his own handing-over as the Eucharistic prayers say.  God’s sovereign action is always the initiator (Atonement, 29): even our own actions are not mere reactions to God’s love but an act of his grace engendering in us a response. God is love. All that he does is because of the love that he is. Even his hatred of sin – his passionate hatred of the distance we ourselves have placed between us and him – is his love in action. Like a human lover, this puts God in a vulnerable position, at risk of being hurt by our rejection. But, unlike a human lover, God keeps pushing forward in love despite being wounded (Atonement, 35). Remember that Jesus is God the Son. He is showing us the love of the Father in this action on the Cross. What we see in Jesus’s love for us is his filial imaging of the Father’s love for us. Like Father, like Son!  As the Father allows us to wound and slay the Son, the Heart of God breaks in the depth of his love for us. And his hatred for sin manifests as we slay his Son, the engendered response to his love rises in us, becoming the restoration of our relationship with him.  (Atonement, 106)

On the cross, Jesus was made to be “sin for us” ​​(2 Corinthians 5:21) and by allowing the perfectly pure Son to experience the natural consequences for our sins God restored us to him. This is the masterstroke against sin, for by the cross those consequences of rejection, pain, and even death become the pathway of the Father’s love to us. (Atonement, 129, footnote 97) As Jesus surrendered perfectly to God’s will, even the worst parts of our world of violence and sin become ways in which God can (and does) reach us. The Eastern Church says Christ has “trampled down death by death.” That’s why the Sacred Heart, wounded by cruelty, is the symbol of love’s triumph.

And so, the prayer says the heart of Christ is the pledge of all that man is called to be. We are called in the Son of God to contemplate the Father. We are called to share the love of God. But there is more. Our heart must become like his: ours must be broken, too. 

We are called, in the closing words of the prayer, to see Christ in the lives we touch, to offer him living worship by love-filled service to our brothers and sisters. We are called to serve others, and to risk in that action the same rejection that he risks; our hearts will also be broken by cruelty as we call others to the divine plan of love. (Atonement, 222 ff) 

Participating in the infinity of God’s action, we become humans paying human debt fully. Our pain, our suffering, in Christ, becomes part of the ongoing action of Atonement. Speaking at Fatima, Pope Benedict said, “entrust to him every setback and pain that you face so that they become – according to his design – a means of redemption for the whole world. You will be redeemers with the Redeemer, just as you are sons in the Son.” 

Atone-over

JMJ

IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH’s Book of Common Prayer (1979), as the priest breaks the consecrated bread, is sung the Fraction Anthem. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” John the Baptist, of course, refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And the New Testament is filled with references to Christ as an atoning sacrifice. (eg John 3:16, Romans 3:24, Hebrews 9:12-16, Revelation 5:9.)

But here’s where my meditations on this hit a snag: the Lamb offered every year at Passover was not offered as a sin offering. The main sin offering was, of course, Yom Kippur, and certainly Good Friday was in the Passover Season. Also the Yom Kippur offering is two goats. Not Lambs. The Passover offering does not fit the pattern of any of the other sacrifices of Leviticus. It was given by God to the people of Israel while they were still in Egypt, before the Temple or Tabernacle system was even discussed.

So it seems that there is a huge significance for this evident change in the Christian reading of the sacrificial system’s symbolism. This theological move forms the hinge by which we connect with the Jewish people. Why is our reading of Passover the way it is? Mind you these are only ruminations: I’m not really going anywhere and I have a lot more questions than answers.

As I noted this reading (of atonement as part of the Messiah’s mission) is present already in the earliest texts of Paul and the Gospels. So it’s not an aberration.

I’m not the historian that can delve into 2nd Temple Judaism. A cursory investigation on the internet shows a lot of Christian sources rather than Jewish ones. It seems the question of Why Passover and not Yom Kippur is a common one. There is a comment from Abraham ibn Ezra, writing in the 10th Century, understanding Passover as an atonement for those “in the house”. (Cited here.) That same page also has an extensive citation from Rashi which seems to hold that image as one of atonement, however I don’t think it jives totally? Both of these comments are in the 10th Century, though. Is there any earlier information? Shrug. This is a meditation, not a history paper.

Nu? Typology, maybe?

If Egypt is taken as a sign of “the world” or “sin” or as a synecdoche for all Gentiles, then Passover is a sign of leaving the worldly order (Mammon) for the Heavenly Kingdom.

If we understand sin as a bunch of rules we’ve broken, demerits, as it were, then we need a sin offering (like Yom Kippur) but if we understand sin as a breaking of the Marriage Covenant between God and his people then we need to redo the covenant, not just undo a few demerits. Passover is before the Sinai covenant and so it’s a good symbol to use for a do-over or a Mulligan.

Another clue about Egypt can be found if we loop back to the Fraction Anthem from the 1979 Prayerbook. It comes from a short passage in Paul:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5: 6-13 (RSVCE)

Paul makes a parallel with the Jewish tradition of “liturgical spring cleaning”. A Jewish family removes all leaven from their house before Passover, sweeping all the corners, wiping down all the shelves. Very pious folks – of a certain standing – even have an entirely different dishes to use, even entirely different kitchens! Paul uses the leaven to signify sin, lists a bunch of sins that he’d like to remove from the Corinthian congregation and warns them that even a little yeast will (eventually) cause the entire bread to rise – not just some of it, but all of it. Taking leavening as a symbol for evil (as it is in the OT), the Apostle urges Christians to leave behind them their lives of sin and to not even associate with those who won’t. (The word rendered “immorality” in the RSVCE refers to sexual immorality. It’s actually the Greek word pornos and it’s related to prostitution. See 1 Corinthians 5:11.) We’re leaving all this behind us in Egypt. We’re not going to let it contaminate our new loaf.

How is this at all an Atonement though? Queue up an offhanded comment from the most recent episode of Bible Project podcast. Look at Exodus:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:12-13 (RSVCE)

I will smite all the 1st born. So even an Israelite would have been included without the Blood. God was allowing the substitution of an innocent life (the lamb) for the life of the First Born. Even more, in the substitution, the whole family was eating the flesh of the First Born.

Typology indeed.

This is not the case in Yom Kippur where the two goats are used: one is sent out of the camp and the other is burned up on the altar and its blood is sprinkled around in the Holy of Holies. Jesus is not that offering: his offering is consumed not by God’s flames but by his family – that is us. His life is substituted for ours. Hebrews says that God did not desire sin offerings, but rather the Body of the Messiah. Through the Body and Blood of Jesus it says, we are able to enter the Holy of Holies. We could read Hebrews 10 to indicate the Yom Kippur sacrifice (where the goat’s blood is sprinkled everywhere) or we can read it as the Passover Sacrifice, where – because God now has flesh and blood – we can enter the Holy of Holies through the veil of his flesh.

The veil of the temple is torn, not because a new priest has entered the Holy Place and torn it, but because the real veil – Jesus’s Flesh – is pierced, revealing the wounded heart of God to all of us to enter into his love.

And Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us to move us out of the Egypt of our Sins to the waters of Baptism and then a lifelong journey to the Holy Land. We’ll stop at Sinai at Pentecost to have the Law Written on our Hearts, and as we wonder through the desert of this world we will (occasionally) wonder why we left Egypt at all. God will give us our Daily Bread.

And then we cross Jordan Dry-shod.

Into Glory.