The human person is called by God to be "holy as I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2), thus fulfilling the basic vocation to be in God's "image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26). However, in the biblical perception, an abyss not only of sin but also of states of impurity separates humanity from God. Biblical Israel was convinced, however, that the loving and saving God, who revealed himself to Israel at Sinai, had established a way for the purification, sanctification and preparation of Israel for direct contact with God. Atonement (the English translation of the Hebrew kippur) is a central moment of reparation in this divinely revealed system of grace.
The word "atonement" appears for the first time in Tyndale's 16th-century translation of the Bible into English and expresses admirably the concept of reparation (at-one-ment) that allows communion with God. In God's instructions for the construction of the Tent of Meeting in Exodus, a rather mysterious utensil called the kapporet (sometimes translated "mercy seat") is mentioned; what is significant is that it is to be the precise meeting place between God and man (25:22). It is here that the human person can reconnect with God through a series of offerings. In Hebrew the word offering (korban) is derived from the same root as the word close (karov). God and humanity draw close to one another again.
According to Leviticus 16:2, only the high priest can approach the kapporet and then only on Yom Kippur (the day each year for atonement not only for the people but also for the holy place of meeting with God). According to the instructions in Leviticus, the priest brings blood offerings, animals that are sacrificed and whose blood is sprinkled on the people and in the sacred place. God explains: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you for making atonement [lechapper] for your lives" (17:11).
Christians believe that the once-a-year ritual of atonement found its perfect fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of a first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who they believe is the promised messiah (Christ in Greek) of Israel and the savior of the world. The Epistle to the Hebrews, from the first century, included in the New Testament, explains that Jesus "entered once and for all into the holy place not with the blood of goats and bulls but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (9:12).
Jesus offered up his life for love of God and love of humanity, providing those who believe in him with the locus for the intimate meeting between God and man. His disciples, those who believe in him and live according to the Torah of God as it is comes to perfect expression in his life, teaching and obedience until death, find in him the tikkun (reparation) and the at-one-ment with God that conquers death and brings them into the fullness of life at one with God.
The writer, a Jesuit priest, is Latin patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.
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