What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? Mark 1:9-15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Our next word from the Biblical text is Repent, Repentance. The ten days that began with Rosh Hashanah and ending last Thursday with Yom Kippur impose upon Jews the demand to contemplate their lives, their behavior and attitudes and seek ways to change. Repentance and reform and renewal, announced with the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), culminate on the holiest day, Yom Kippur (“the day of atonement”).
This morning I am asking the question, What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? What is the place of repentance in Christian practice?
*** A young man from a socially prominent family returns to his native grounds from military duty. He encounters a girl he had known as a youth now grown up to be very beautiful. He is overwhelmed with love and desire. But she is unavailable, being a servant in the family household. During his visit, he importunes her and entices her into the greenhouse where they make love. She awakes the next morning with expectations of continuing the romance, but he’s already gone and has only left her a note. In the note, is a $100 bill, to her horror. She soon finds she is pregnant and is fired for it and ostracized from the community. The baby dies in infancy.
By some ten years later our young man has attained a major rank in the military and plays quite the dandy about town with his friends and their women. One day he is called for jury duty and listens to the case against three petty thieves, one of whom is a woman accused of murdering one of their victims. The accused murderer admits to being a prostitute and having robbed a customer, but denies the murder. The judge accepts the jury’s guilty verdict and sentences her to five years hard labor. Over the course of the trial, our officer recognizes her to be the young woman he degraded and disgraced. Immediately he realizes the connection between his actions and her fate. He approaches the judge on the spot and tries to get the verdict reversed. To no avail. He importunes him to reduce the sentence. To no avail. Our officer uses his rank to get into the offices of people high in the criminal justice system. To no avail. All the time, he is trying to get into the prison where she is kept in order to visit her, and when he finally does he begs for her forgiveness. She won’t have any of it. “I’ll get you out, I’ll save you. Just forgive me.” “You only want to save your eternal soul.” She sends him, baffled, away. Nevertheless, he manages to talk to her again as she is being transferred from the prison to the train taking prisoners to the labor camps, and he promises he will follow her and wait for her with the intention of marrying her. “I want to save you.” To no avail.
Over time as her sentence proceeds, she falls in love with another prisoner and eventually she decides she will marry him upon release. She tells our officer, who by now has forsaken his own family and fortune and taken up the cause of all prisoners because of the penal system’s bestial abuse of them. He resigns himself to her decision and, still unforgiven, blesses their plans to marry. But the whole ordeal has converted him to a life of reforming prisons and the criminal justice system.
I have just told you the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, published in 1899, which runs to 450 pages. The importance of our story can be found in that day in the jury box. Prince Dmitri Neklyudov was smitten with the realization that he is the cause of her downfall. Cause and effect were welded together in a lightning crack. He is instantly remorseful and sincerely knows he must seek her forgiveness. He is incredulous at the verdict because he knows her character and she is innocent. After repeated attempts to get her off, and with repeated visits to her in the prison, he asked her forgiveness which she declined to do over and over. This could be a story about forgiveness, because it raises the ethical issue of whether she was wrong to refuse it to him. But it’s not about forgiveness. The story is about repentance, which can lead, even without the forgiveness, to resurrection, hence the title of the novel. Prince Neklyudov found, in the five years he traveled with the prison train to Siberia, that he had found a purpose in life. It is interesting to note that an alternative translation of the title was “The Awakening,” suggesting that just seeing himself for what he was restored his life to him. He changed, without benefit of her forgiveness, anyway. And this only reflects the painful reality of life that forgiveness does not always come in one’s own lifetime or that of the person you seek forgiveness from.
Jesus is another word for Forgiveness. But, Repentance occupies the entire foreground of the Christian gospel. The word “repent” is among the first words Jesus utters in the gospel record, as you heard in the text for today. It means “to turn,” that is, to turn toward God, or in the Yom Kippur liturgy, to return to God (TeShuva). That is, return to good standing with God and with the community. To be in right relation with God is a definition of happiness. The health of human society depends upon the health of human relations, and repair of human injury is indispensable. Repent, mind you, is not the same as remorse which is a feeling, a bad feeling. To repent, on the other hand, is an action--to repent is to turn toward the light. In fact, it is like turning on the light when you go into a darkened walk-in closet, all of a sudden you see everything. It makes you want to say, “My God, why didn’t you tell me?” God’s answer would be, “I did--in Jesus.” The light enables you to re-order your life and your whole sense of self.
This is the whole point of the Jewish High Holy Days which concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the return to God’s good graces is fulfilled, or set in motion for the next year. And what do Christians have for Yom Kippur?
Since we are spiritual descendants of Judaism, the Christian year has several close parallels. There is no single “day of atonement” as such, although communion Sundays involve the same repentance and resolve to amend. The 50 days of Lent leading up to Holy Week and Easter represent a comparable spirit, being a time of special contemplation of our lives in relation to Christ’s. But the focus, unfortunately, can fall exclusively on Christ’s sufferings.
In Judaism and in Chrisitianity, the penitent attempts to make a clean breast of things, so that the weight of the past with its sin and errors, its hurts and violations, can be wiped away. Jews wish each other “to a good year,” but Christians don’t exactly have an expression we share after communion. It’s an open question what we could devise for our good wishes. Something, I hope, that would convey that this is your moment to step out of the mire of time toward the light, toward eternity from which you can see where you really are. All else is vanity, vanity as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, compared to the light. Turn, return, to it. Amen.