Let me tell you about a Day of Atonement. At the time it was one of the saddest days of my life. As is common with the Day of Atonement, a few days later we were rejoicing. At the time I didnít even realize it was a day of atonement. It was Passover, and the real Day of Atonement should have been six months away. We were later to learn it was a day of atonement nonetheless.
Now that Iíve piqued your interest, let me proceed. Perhaps I should start a week or more earlier. We had been traveling with the Teacher from Galilee through Samaria toward Jerusalem. At first the teacher had sent some of us out as advance men to the villages he would pass through. As he reached those villages he took the time to teach and to heal. He angered a few people when he healed on Shabbos, but for the most part it was a good trip. As the holiday approached, though, we traveled faster. We arrived at Jerusalem on the same day they were bringing in the sheep to be chosen for the Passover sacrifice. We should have known something was going to be different this year when we entered Jerusalem. The people greeted the Teacher with palm branches and recitations of the psalm used on Hoshana Rabbah. (See A Celebration Out of Timein the October, 2000 issue.) If it looked like sukkos then, we should have asked what Passover held in store.
For most of the week leading up to the holiday, we stayed in Bethany. The Teacher had been telling us about the leaders of the Pharisees wanting to kill him, so I think he wanted to stay out of their way, especially after that greeting in Jerusalem. We expected him to share the seder with Lazarus and his sisters. It was a surprise, then, when he sent Cephas and John to find a place to hold the feast. How were they going to find a room in all of Jerusalem at the last minute? We would be better off staying in Bethany, where we knew we had a place to celebrate. The Teacher had a plan, though. He told them to enter the city and follow a man carrying a jug of water. (That drew a few snickers.) When that person went into a house they were to ask the owner for a place to hold the feast. Amazingly, this plan worked.
I wonít go into detail about the feast that night. Maybe another time. Suffice it to say it was an unusual evening. Between the Teacher washing our feet and Judas leaving unexpectedly, we were all a little apprehensive. The discussion that evening went places we had never expected. We were all a little glad to leave and head home toward Bethany.
When the Teacher made a stop in Gethsemane we thought little of it. He enjoyed the paradise, and spent time there whenever he could. When he asked most of us to stop, and took Cephas, James, and John a little further we just considered this normal routine. I did notice that he eventually left them alone for a while. It had been a long week, traveling almost daily between Bethany and Jerusalem, so most of us were tired.
When we woke to the unexpected arrival of soldiers and others (I couldnít tell who all was there in the torchlight) we were a little confused. Cephas, who had just rejoined us, started flailing away with his sword. We knew what he could be like when awakened suddenly, so we stayed out of his way, but he did manage to remove an ear from one unfortunate fellow. (Fortunately, the Teacher put the ear back on.) I did see Judas go up to the teacher, and wondered what he was doing with this crowd. When they asked for the Teacher by name he agreed to go with the soldiers. Most of us decided this was a good time to disappear. At least the Teacher would be safe with the soldiers, we hoped. We couldnít guarantee the same for us at the hands of the mob.
The next time I saw the Teacher I almost didnít recognize him. I had gone to the Roman palace to see if I could hear any news about what had happened to him. It had been several hours since he had been taken from Gethsemane. I learned later that John and Cephas had been able to see him briefly from a distance earlier. He had clearly gone through a lot since. When I saw him standing before the Roman governor he was covered in blood. He had clearly been beaten. Although he was dressed in a purple robe the blood stains were obvious. Blood was dripping down his face from a circlet of thorns on his head. He still looked strong, but not like he had before. A lacerated back can take a lot out of you. Yet he stood tall before the governor, plainly answering his questions with his usual confidence.
We in the crowd could hear little of what was going on. At one point, though, the governor addressed the crowd. He was offering a choice between pardoning the Teacher and another man. The same people, possibly, who had welcomed the Teacher a week earlier now demanded his execution at the hands of the Romans.
The place of execution is outside the city. If it had been up to the Romans it would probably have been in the city center. But they let us keep our culture and our religion, and at least gave us this much. Of course, that meant that the candidates for execution had to carry a beam of wood from the Temple precincts, down through town, and then out to a nearby hill. Hardly anybody could negotiate that trek alone. In a sense, the Roman respect turned to their advantage in respect to Roman cruelty. After the beating he had taken, the Teacher was no more able to carry a heavy beam that distance than anyone else. I would willingly have helped him, but when he stumbled I was too far away. They forced someone else to help him.
It took a while to get to the place of execution, Golgotha. After he had stumbled, I made my way around the crowd to that hill. Thus I was there when the soldiers and the condemned men arrived. There were three to be crucified that day. I suspect that the majority of the crowd was there because of the Teacher, however. I was able to read the charge above the head of one of the others. He was there for robbery. When they raised the Teacher up I heard a gasp from the crowd around his cross. Then came a murmur spreading outward as people read the charge. The Romans were executing him for being the King of the Jews. The mob had demanded that one accused of sedition be released, and now the Romans were killing an innocent man on the charge of sedition. I am sure that some of the leaders would rather the people had seen a charge of blasphemy. The people were more likely to honor a revolutionary than a heretic. Nevertheless, the charge was there for all to see. Some of us even think that it should have read King of Kings.
There is something about an execution that draws a crowd. We say we are gentle people, but we rush to view a man die. Many in the crowd could be seen to stop in at food shops along the way. After all, a crucifixion takes a long time. I hope some of us can be pardoned for following the crowd because we knew one of the condemned men. As hard as it must have been, I know Miriam, the Teacherís mother, had to be there. No mother should ever have to see her child die; but no mother could stay away when her child needed her by his side. Miriam was proud of her son. Sometimes around the campfire she would tell the story of his birth, or about the visit of the men from the east a couple of years later. But pride and high hopes were what forced her to his side as he appeared to be about to die.
Not everyone in the mob was like the Teacherís mother, or John, or even me. As the Roman soldiers raised him up on the cross many mocked him. I knew this would happen. It always does at an execution. Even if they didnít know the man, some people have to get in a last, cruel word. In some ways it was worse in the case of the Teacher. Instead of general mockery, many flung his own words in his face. ďTear down the temple and build it in three days, will you? Letís see you do it now.Ē ďSon of man. Son of God. Let me see you come down. Then I will believe you.Ē ďHe saved others. Why doesnít he save himself?Ē Good men can be exceptionally cruel in a mob.
I was hoping he would respond by coming down off the cross. That was not to be. Instead he conversed with the men being executed with him. He said something to John, who was standing with Miriam close to the cross. Amazingly the one thing I could hear was when he shouted a line from one of the psalms. That was the Teacher, though; quoting scripture to the very end.
And then it was the end. And what an end! Darkness at noon. Earthquakes. It was like we were inside the writings of the Twelve Prophets. Looking back, I see we were.
The day of sorrow was turned to rejoicing the following week, when we learned that the Teacher had come out of his tomb, alive again. We had seen him raise others back to life, but had not expected him to raise himself.
Thank you for bearing with me through this account. By now you are probably asking yourself what all this has to do with the Day of Atonement. After all, I said this happened one Passover. The thing is, it wasnít long before we realized the significance of the Teacherís execution and resurrection. This was a Day of Atonement half way through the year, but one that made all others unnecessary. You see, God required a sin offering. We came to realize that the Teacher was the sin offering. Because he was the perfect Son of God, the offering doesnít need to be repeated. Our sins are covered by his blood. The Teacher, acting as High Priest, took his own blood into the ultimate Holy of Holies in heaven. That is how a Passover can become the Day of Atonement.
Taken from accounts in Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-16, Luke 14-24, and John 12-20, as well as ideas presented in Hebrews 9-10.
The Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur falls on October 13, 2005.