Today marks the climax of the holy Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, the traditional Day of Atonement – the chance for forgiveness and for God’s great, merciful gift of holiness. Christians too honor this heritage introduced to us by our Jewish forbearers. We also recognize God’s unbending standard of rightness, our inability to keep that standard, and our need for God’s merciful grace to avoid his judgment of our failures.
Yom Kippur represents an opportunity to “reboot” our lives, to make a clean slate, as God himself covers our failure and pays the debts we cannot meet. Christians believe that Jesus himself is the “completion” of Yom Kippur. In fact we understand the crux of our faith, the death of Jesus on the cross, against the backdrop of this holiday.
Next month I will release a new book dealing with this very topic called “The Karma of Jesus.” Here’s an excerpt that touches on the way Christians assimilate Yom Kippur into our understanding of Jesus and of God’s grace.
Ancient Jews anticipated the possibility of total and complete salvation. Every Autumn Jews celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Many still do. Like many religious ceremonies Yom Kippur originally involved the slaughter of animals. Ancient people believed that life resides in blood. By ritually killing animals they believed they could exchange its life for the debt they had incurred by their own moral failures.
On Yom Kippur Jewish priests sacrificed one goat and used its blood to cleanse sin. They then imposed a very different destiny on a second goat. Instead of killing it, the lead priest placed his hands on the creature’s head and began to recite – in detail – all the failures the entire nation had committed in the previous year. Imagine a public reading of the “naughty” ledger of Santa’s list.
This confession, they believed, transferred their corporate guilt onto the poor goat – their “scapegoat.” Once they completed the ritual, they drove the poor beast into the desert symbolically bearing their load of shame and blame out into desolate places.
Could it be that Jesus took up both roles, the sacrificed life that paid for the dire consequences and the “scapegoat” that carried them in himself and out of reach of the rest of humanity?
Are you in need of God’s pardon? Working harder at being perfect won’t suffice. Consider Jesus, and the gift of forgiveness and holiness he offers. Here’s a Christian prayer for Yom Kippur:
“God, I cannot meet the standards of purity and rightness you have established. I recognize that Jesus has met those standards and that he offers to exchange his perfection for my imperfection. I accept the promise you have made to me (I John 1:9) that if I confess my sin, you will forgive me and cleanse me from all impurity. I do this now. And I thank you that I can, here and now experience a true day of atonement, standing right before your eyes, not because of what I’ve done, but because of what Jesus has done, on my behalf.”