Formations 11.15.2020: The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16:2-5, 15-18

In ancient Israel, the turn of the new year was accompanied by a nationwide spiritual reset called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was (and is) the most solemn day on Israel’s liturgical calendar.

The observance has to do with an ancient—some might say primal—understanding of the effects of sin. We might think of sin in terms of legal infractions (“I’m guilty”) or relational rifts (“I’m estranged”). For ancient peoples, however, probably the most common way to think of sin was in terms of contamination: “I’m unclean.” What we need, then, is not so much to be acquitted or forgiven but to be cleansed.

That is the imagery at the heart of the Day of Atonement ritual. Our sins have mired us in an almost physical contamination that reaches as far as the holy sanctuary. For life to proceed, we must be washed clean from top to bottom.

Therefore, on this awe-full day, the high priest offers a sacrifice for the sins of all the people. It is a time of national mourning and confession that culminates with the sprinkling of sacrificial blood upon the mercy seat, thus restoring the sanctuary to ceremonial purity. It is the one time each year that he is permitted to come before the ark of the covenant, the physical representation of God’s presence among the people.

How might all of this ancient ritual apply to Christians today? I can think of a number of ways.

It could remind us that entering God’s presence is serious business. It’s not to be taken lightly—a visit with “the Man Upstairs.” If the high priest only enters the holy of holies with fear and trembling, why should we think otherwise. Yes, the Bible urges us to “come boldly before the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), but boldly doesn’t mean casually or indifferently.

It could remind us that personal sins ripple through the community. We may not understand how our sins take a toll on others, but they do. Sin contaminates everything it touches. In Israel, and in Judaism today, this sobering fact lies behind this one obligatory day of fasting on the calendar. When we consider our sins, let us consider how they have touched and diminished others.

It could remind us that even our religious institutions can become infected by sin. That’s why the high priest has to “make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev 16:16). How would we think differently about our church, our beliefs, our cherished traditions, if we understood that they, too, could become damaged by our wrongdoing? How would we hear calls for collective repentance and reform?


• What practices help you remember God’s holiness when you enter God’s presence in prayer and worship?
• Where have you seen personal or private sins ripple through a network of relationship? How did people address this situation?
• What is the individual’s role in addressing the sins of their community or nation?
• What does the Day of Atonement imply about sin and the need for cleansing?
• What practices do we have for atonement today, and what might Israel’s practice teach us?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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