Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Liturgy on the Atonement

Holy Wednesday is known as “Spy Wednesday” because on this day, Judas is said to have made a bargain with the high priest to betray Jesus.  It is a time when the crowds, so effusive in their praise of Jesus on Sunday, now are turning against him.  They will eventually betray him, as did Judas, demanding the Romans to “Crucify Him”.

As I meditate on this scene, I contemplate how easy it is for me to be swayed by desire and fear into spaces that disconnect me from the divine.  Judas succumbed to something inside us, as did the people, in choosing to separate themselves from the god who could save them.  Is this not symbolic of so much we do as humans?  When we are filled with desire or fear, we can be swayed to a kind of mob mentality, a choice to destroy rather than to build, a choice to separate rather than connect. 

In a symbolic way, this choice to separate ourselves from God is the essence of the Garden narrative.  When Eve and Adam made a choice to be human, they chose to disconnect themselves from God.  As Mormons, we embrace this as an essential choice – the right choice, yet we must also realize that they “sinned” in doing so.   The plan was for them to learn through their own experience to distinguish good and evil, and when they would sin, a Savior would be provided for them.

So here we are, mid-Holy Week, contemplating the betrayal of Judas, the fear-based mob mentality that drives a wedge in our relationship with god, separating us from the divine.  This is the gathering of the darkness in our journey, when we contemplate the our separation from God, and our need for the Savior.   We seek something.


A moment of silence touches my soul as I consider the word, and how much baggage this principle provides for so many who have embarked on a journey of Thoughtful Faith.  Our Book of Mormon describes the atonement in very specific terms:

“For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption.
For the atonement satisfieth the demands of justice" (2 Nephi 9:6-7, 26)
This explanation gives me pause, because it says that God is so rigid, so fixed on justice, that he must have a *satisfaction* of the law, and such satisfaction must be infinite.  I have three responses to this:

1.  Is that a good description for a god of love? 
2.  Where did the idea of “satisfaction” of law and justice come from?
3.  How does this doctrine affect how we live?

To the first point, I do not believe that God is so vengeful, so demanding of justice, that he requires the death of his Son in order to satisfy an infinite need for justice.  I think this makes god out to be a monster, rigid and inflexible.  But more importantly, such a doctrine justifies a kind of legalism in how we behave toward one another, that we can justify condemning others based upon this principle. 

Secondly, this idea of “satisfaction” is interesting in its origin.  The use of the term indicates that the Book of Mormon’s view of atonement derives from Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement, that Jesus Christ suffered and died to satisfy God’s just wrath against man’s transgressions, from Adam onward.  In effect, much of our LDS thinking of the atonement derives from this, and from Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.  Whether to satisfy god’s wrath, or to stand as substitute for the punishment mankind deserves, these theories of Atonement all make god a monster. 

The problem is that these theories of atonement do arise not from scripture, but rather, a distinctly non-Mormon worldview: that mankind is a degenerate, fallen creature, totally depraved, and incapable of freedom to choose the right.  Mormons, on the other hand, believe that we are co-eternal with God, that the Fall was a necessary part of a plan, and that mankind is imbued with free agency: we can choose to do good, or we can choose otherwise. 

As for the third point, I simply wonder, when we focus so much on the guilt and pain we have caused Christ; when we harrow ourselves with shame for our sinful selves, what are we to do differently because of these theories of atonement?  How do they help us?

I don’t believe they do.  And when I read the Passion narrative of Christ, I find no evidence at all of these theories.

I believe we need to embrace a more inspiring model for atonement, one that first examines, this Holy Wednesday, what it means for us to separate ourselves from God, and then finds the Way to reconnect ourselves to God. 

The Wednesday Liturgy starts with the betrayal of Judas.  There is a scene where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus head with a “pound of spikenard, very costly”, and Judas reaction was that he thought this to be over the top.  Indeed, the value of twelve ounces of this imported essential oil from Nepal was an entire year’s salary for a laborer, perhaps the equivalent in today’s dollars of $30,000.  Yet as frivolous as this seemed, Jesus allowed it. 

The scriptures paint Judas as evil in his intent, but I’m not sure that is a fair assessment.  He may have had good intention, we cannot be sure.  His act was to move the story along, but more importantly, his act of betrayal, for whatever reason, was an act to *separate* Christ from his disciples, and vice versa. 

In like fashion, the people who a few days earlier celebrated hosannas at Jesus’ triumphal entry were now doubting, and ultimately called to *separate* themselves from Jesus, demanding him to be crucified.

When we look back to the symbolism of the Fall, the act of Eve and Adam to partake of the fruit caused them to *separate* from the presence of God.

If the effect and status of mankind as a result of the fall and our errors in judgment is to separate us from god, then the atonement must be the reconciliation of us to god.  When we view the various theories of atonement through the ages, whether “Christ Victor”, “Moral Influence”, “Ransom”, “Satisfaction”, or “Penal Substitution”, none of these actually address *how* we connect back to god.  In fact, they all result from a perspective that Fall creates depravity rather than separation.  None of these terms focus on what the Atonement actually is, or what we should do about it.

The Gospel of John presents Christ’s *Connection Model of Atonement*: how we become ONE with God. He starts by stating his intent:
John 14:2-3 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

We interpret this verse to speak of the heavens – that the kingdom of heaven is full of various “mansions”.  But the Gospel of John is not as much about the future, as it is symbolically about the present.  The Kingdom of God is to be found within.   When Christ receives us unto himself, it’s not so much about the next life as it is about this one: we become reborn in Christ when he receives us unto himself. 
John 14:20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. 

“At that day” refers to the moment that we are received into Christ: we realize something, we shall know something: not something that is happening “at that day”, but rather, that it has always been the case.  We shall realize that Jesus is IN the Father, and we are IN Jesus, and Jesus is IN us.  We, then, will realize that we ARE NOT separated from God, but rather, his presence is here, now, within us, and we have but to become reborn – resurrected in this life – in order to realize it.
John 15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

What is this saying?  A branch, separate from the rest of the vine, cannot bear fruit.  Jesus is stating, in unequivocal words, that we MUST be connected to the Vine, to Him.  Jesus has explained the Atonement, that only by his death will they be able to reconnect themselves to the Vine, and the connecting power, the power of resurrection, is the Comforter, who abides with us, so that we can abide in Jesus, and He in us. 

Then, Jesus prayed:
“Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee…And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent…
And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.  And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be ONE, as we are.Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be ONE; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be ONE in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be ONE, even as we are ONE: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect (complete, whole, unconditionally loving) in ONE…
And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

The Atonement, as an English word, is literally made up of a phrase, “At-One”.  For us to understand the atonement as Jesus Christ taught it, we must set aside all worldly philosophies of “satisfaction”, “Ransom”, or “penal substitution”.  Jesus wants us to be ONE *in exactly the same Way* Jesus is ONE with the father.  This isn’t future tense: he is not speaking about being ONE in some future life as a resurrected being.

As humans, we seemed to be easily estranged from ourselves, from each other, and from whatever God may be defined as being. The Atonement is an amazing principle: we are forgiven already, so stop feeling guilty and get on with living. Oh, and be One with yourself, with god, and with each other. At-one-ment means just that.

If we accept that because of the Atonement of Christ, then the original Jewish principle of the Yom Kippur scapegoat symbolism is deeply meaningful.  Let us cast aside our sins and move on to the enlightened life, each day (yom) can thus be the day of atonement (literally, what "yom kippur" means, when we recognize our deficiencies, cast them onto the symbolic atonement sacrifice, and embrace the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is HOW we are to be ONE with each other.  Every part of the teachings Christ gave in this Holy Week liturgy has the effect of *connecting* us to the One.

On Sunday, we realized that the King of all is not found on thrones of red, but in homes of the humble, that he who comes in the name of the Lord…is us.  We are ONE when we bless each other, lifting each other’s burdens.

On Monday, we realized through the washing of feet, that we are ONE with each other, as we humble ourselves in service, connecting each other in love.

On Tuesday, we realized that the Comforter exists as ONE with us, as we connect with and comfort those who stand in need of Comfort.

The Atonement is the connecting principle, the way we are ONE with all that is, was, and will be. 

Then, and only then, will we realize and know that God is already in us, and we in God, as we declare, “Hear oh Israel, I AM our Gods, I AM ONE.”

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