Day of Atonement: Thoughts After Ash Wednesday

 This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.– Leviticus 16:34
“Remember that you are dust, and to the dust you will return” – Anglican Liturgy


Jerusalem, 50 BC:

Baruch felt a lump rise in his throat as he approached the walls of the Temple Court in Jerusalem. His small flock of goats had traveled with him from Bethlehem to Jerusalem over the last few days, and sadly, he knew the lives of four of them were coming to an end.

Baruch was no stranger to the death of his animals. As a shepherd among the priestly order, he was used to making the five mile trip to Jerusalem; used to handing the best of his goats over to the Levites. But today was a personal first; today he would be handing over the four best of his flock for a very specific purpose.

So it was with a heavy heart that Baruch entered the temple courts as his flock was picked over.  While four of the unblemished animals were taken, he looked over and saw a large bull being brought through the southern temple door, a doorway that was reserved only for the transportation of animals to sacrifice.

Baruch felt out of place on this dawn morning. Normally, the temple would be rowdy with sound. Horns would be blown to welcome the new day, coins could be heard rattling as they fell into clay pots, the hooting of hundreds of pigeons would resound, teachers would yell across the courtyard while observant women chanted from the upper walls. But not on this dawning day.

Today, the court and the temple stood silent.

Today, the only sound that resounded was the bleating of Baruch’s four goats and the lowing of a bull. On this day, the normal activities would not take place: it was the annual Day of Atonement.

When the animals were exchanged Baruch was ushered out of the temple courts while his four goats were roped to posts inside the temple. It was here that a handful of Levitical priests washed the five animals: making sure they were clean and perfect for the sacrifice.

First, one goat was killed on the altar for the sins that the High Priest had committed. Then, after washing his body and dawning on new linens that have never been worn, the High Priest lead the bull unto the altar. Here, the High Priest himself slit it’s throat and let the blood bleed upon the brazen altar as its body burned. When the bull started to become consumed into ash, the High Priest gathered the animal’s life-blood, his ashes and some incense. With a rope tied around his waist, he entered into the quiet sanctuary and into the Holy of Holies.  If he did not emerge within an hour, the Levites would have to pull him out by the rope, it was not uncommon for the High Priest to die within the the most inward part of the temple: the place where God’s presence dwelt. So the nation fasted and prayed for the High Priest and for their own sins.

Because he was cleaning the Temple.

Every year, the Temple became unclean. Every day, offerings were given, thanksgiving was celebrated, and sins were forgiven. But humanity still brought it’s fallen nature into God’s temple: every day. Humanity left it’s mark throughout this holy place. So once a year, the High Priest meets with God as he sprinkles the bull’s blood in the sacred space to atone for the sin that he and his priestly order have brought. And when the bull’s blood has been accepted, the Priest will emerge again and sacrifice two more goats. The first will be a sacrifice for any sin that the people of Israel has committed, and the second will be consumed fully, just as the bull was. And when the blood was split and the ashes were made, the High Priest would once again go into the Holy of Holies to ask for mercy on behalf of the people; on behalf of the grime that they the nation has made in the sacred space.

So when the High Priest emerged for the second time, the Levites breathed a sigh of relief. This year, God has been merciful. Some of the Levites gathered up what was left of the ashes and brought them outside the camp to be completely burned. But the High Priest stayed behind with a few others. The few that were left behind placed their hands on the last goat. They prayed that whatever sin remaining in the Temple would be placed on this perfect, unblemished goat. When the prayers were given, a Levite lead the lone animal out of the temple, out of the courts, and through the main road of the city.

Much of the city stood outside and repented of their sins as they watched the scapegoat make it’s way out to the wilderness. Some women cast spices behind it as it bleated lamely. But Baruch watched from afar with tears in his eyes. For his beloved animal that he helped birth, that he fed, that he carried, and attended to for a year of his life would be abandoned in the nearby valley,  forced to wander laden with the sins of humanity while his brother’s ashes smoldered nearby.

Atonement had been made.

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Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Yesterday was a day of repentance, fasting, and prayer. It was a day to don black clothes and be reminded of my sin – the rebellion I carry with me. It was a day where I prepared for the Lenten season ahead: a season of lament, self-denial, and a special focusing on Jesus. It was not the Day of Atonement that was practiced during the time of Christ, but I couldn’t help but see the similarities – and differences – that these two days possess.

Yesterday, I knelt down at our Seminary’s chapel as ashes were smeared on my forehead. As I knelt, I was told “Remember that you are dust, and to the dust you will return”.  So I couldn’t help but think about the five unlucky animals that were sacrificed every year on the Day of Atonement. Four of them would become ashes – utterly and completely.  While the scapegoat would return to the dust in whatever manner nature chose.

It was with this image that I approached the chapel’s altar. I approached as the wandering goat that was destined to become ashes and dust. However, there is a major difference between me and the scapegoat of the Ancient world: the goat was unblemished.

I am not.

So I put on the tangible ashes that remind me of my own mortality. And I prepare my heart to encounter Jesus, the unblemished god-man. And not even I can atone for my grime: for I am blemished.

Instead, it is Jesus’ blood that will atone for me – 43 days from this day of repentance. It will be his blood that is sprinkled on my personal Temple: my body. Yesterday, I prepared to encounter what the High Priest encounters every year: the forgiving presence of God. Only this time, I too am invited into the Holy of Holies.

But I do it differently than my ancestors.

I am not told to wash the ashes from my face after this encounter with the Lord. I am not told to bathe this imperfection from my body. Instead, I am called to focus on Jesus, for he is making all things new, including the ashes that I will one day return to.


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