Between May 2011 and September 2012, I was a teacher at a school for hill tribes teens and young adults in Northern Thailand just outside of the city of Chiang Mai. During that time I gave a great many messages to a group of perhaps barely comprehending young people who were listening to the messages in translation in either Thai or Burmese. Among those messages was a rather simple and straightforward sermon on why we fast on the Day of Atonement , a post that was not immediately popular but has had over a thousand views the last few days, which by the modest standards of my blog is a rather intense bout of popularity. I have found it somewhat puzzling that messages I gave which I considered to be very straightforward and conventional and not particularly original are often deeply popular because people are looking for something simple and straightforward. Without having consciously done it, it appears that my posts seeking to provide education and instruction to young people in how to follow God’s ways are also of interest to a great many other people besides.
The Day of Atonement is a day that has always carried some deeply personal memories with me. Growing up as I did in a very strict family, from a very young age it was expected that my younger brother and I would fast during the period from sunset to sunset and not make a big fuss over it. According to the custom of the Jews, it is only required for someone to fast once they have reached the age of accountability, which is twelve (for girls) and thirteen (for guys), but in the Church of God the custom varies from family to family. There has, at least to my knowledge, been no halakhah from ministers or church organizations which has been recognized as binding providing guidance on the matter. Those who would attempt to set an age would likely not find their views viewed as authoritative anyway, though, in the contemporary climate of the various organizations of the Churches of God. As a result, parents and children are left to sort out the extent to which they view it as inhumane for small children to be withheld from food and water for a day and to what extent they view the spiritual lessons of vulnerability and intimacy with God as being worth enduring from one’s youth.
As someone who frequently writes concerning the Day of Atonement , I notice certain patterns in my own thinking about the subject. While some people focus their attention on the absence of food and water from their own lives during this day, for me the Feast has long had something to do with intimacy on several levels. When we go without food and water, we become far more intimately acquainted with hunger and thirst. While some people fast for medical reasons or weight control, a spiritual fast is more than merely skipping meals, but rather is a reminder of our dependency on God for our daily bread. There are many for whom a consistent food supply is not something to be taken for granted, and who are aware of the pangs of hunger. There are also many of us who have deep hungers for something other than food and water that are difficult to fulfill, and that remind us that we are missing something, and that our lives are marked in some sense by deprivation. Our hungers and our longings, whether they are for something as tangible as food and drink or are more complicated longings for love and respect and justice and eternity, drive us to act in ways that will fulfill those longings so that we can move on to something else. A life without hunger is not a life that leads to a great deal of worthwhile things, for it is our longing that inspires us to grow and to feed the gnawing beast inside.
Unsurprisingly, the intimacy of the Day of Atonement comes with a price. Specifically, as readers of Leviticus 16 will be aware of, two identical goats will be chosen. One of these goats will be sacrificed with its blood serving to purify the articles of the tabernacle, and later the temple, allowing the high priest to have his sins covered by blood so that he can enter the Holy of Holies for the only time during the year. The other goat, though, has the sins of the people of Israel placed on its head and is led out into the wilderness by a man who, as a result, is forbidden from entering back into the congregation of Israel the rest of the day. There are, of course, many debates about the Azazel goat and its relationship with Satan and goat demons, which was transliterated into English as a scapegoat and assumed to be an innocent substitutionary victim. Goats, in general, do not fare well in the Bible, as the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 makes plain, even though they are clean animals that were acceptable for sacrifice. What is most striking to me is the connection between intimacy and the goats–the goat that died allowed for greater intimacy than normal between God and mankind, and the goat that lived forced someone to be isolated himself for the remainder of the high day, thus greatly reducing his intimacy with other believers.
So, what does all of this mean for us? We do not sacrifice goats, nor do we have a physical temple or tabernacle. Yet we still fast and seek intimacy with God on the Day of Atonement. There are people who read Jonah still and see the concern that God has not only for Gentiles but even for the animals of the repentant Ninevites. And intimacy is still a matter of importance for Atonement. Sometimes that theme of intimacy and reconciliation is highlighted and discussed openly. At other times it is allowed to serve as part of the context and background that can be overlooked by those who are only focusing on the surface. How are we best to worship on this day, and to take to heart the lessons we learn from goats and believers in times past?
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