Day of Atonement

Day of Atonement

Homily for Easter 7

May 29, 2022

Day of Atonement

Homily for Sunday, May 29, 2022
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
John 17:20–26

Preached the Sunday after the Uvalde, Texas school shooting

Were we to live in ancient Israel, and were we to have grievously offended another just, say, a week after the annual Day of Atonement, we would need to live with our guilt for an entire year before the next Day of Atonement.  And were this the case, perhaps the hardest thing to do in our guilt would be to remember that atonement, though it may be a long way off, yet someday will come.
And I want to get back to guilt, remembering and atonement, but first, “Is St. John’s Gospel poetry?”  “Is St. John’s Gospel poetry?”  And I ask because—at least according to several definitions—St. John’s Gospel possibly might be “poetry”:

Elisa Gabbert, one of the New York Times’ “On Poetry” columnists, once heard a student define poetry as “language that is ‘coherent enough.’”  According to this student definition, St. John’s Gospel is poetry, for it is language that is “coherent enough.”  We might not understand Jesus’ long discourses, but we can readily follow, for example, John’s chronology: that Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple near the time of the Passover (2:13–22); that Jesus preached about “rivers of living water” at the Feast of Tabernacles (7:38ff); and that Jesus spoke of being the Good Shepherd during the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple (10:22).  St. John’s Gospel is "language that is ‘coherent enough.’”

The Encyclopedia Brittanica has a more formal definition: poetry is “literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.”  According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, St. John’s Gospel might be poetry.  While I don’t know if John arranged his language “for its… sound and rhythm,” certainly—with John’s ever-so-careful word choices, such as in John, Jesus makes exactly seven “I am” statements—John did choose and arrange his language “for its meaning.”

The Oxford Languages dictionary defines poetry as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by use of distinctive style and rhythm.”  Again, according to this definition, John’s Gospel might be poetry.  With his masterfully-told stories—such as the woman at the well in chapter 4 or the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene in chapter 20—John certainly does give “special intensity to the expression of feelings and ideas.”

Returning to Elisa Gabbert (the Times’ columnist), Gabbert’s own definition of poetry is: language “that leaves something out.”  “Verse,” she says, “is constantly reminding us of what’s not there.”  “The missingness of poetry,” she writes, is what “slows readers down, making them search for what can’t be found” (New York Times, April 17, 2022).  And this slowed-down search for what can’t be found, she says, ultimately is a pleasurable experience and is what makes poetry poetry.  If poetry is language “that leaves something out,” then, Yes, John is poetry, for John leaves plenty out.  Unlike the Synoptics, for example, in John there are no parables and no exorcisms.  In John there is no Transfiguration and no institution of the Lord’s Supper.  In John the mother of Jesus has no name, nor does the so-called “Beloved Disciple.”  John leaves plenty out of his Gospel.  Perhaps the most prominent thing John leaves out of his Gospel—what is the unseen “mountain” at the center that John circles around and constantly reminds us of but never explicitly names—is the Day of Atonement.

To be sure John hints at the Day of Atonement—on his way into the Holy of Holies to make atonement, the High Priest would go past the table with the showbread (e.g., Ex 25:30) / “I am the bread of life,” declares Jesus in John chapter 6 (6:35); on the Day of Atonement the High Priest would go past the lampstand (e.g., Ex 25:31) / “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus in chapter 8 (8:12); and on the Day of Atonement on his way to the Holy of Holies the High Priest would go past the altar of incense (e.g., Ex 30:1ff) / in chapter 12 Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard, “and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3).  John hints at the Day of Atonement, this “mountain” at the center of his Gospel, but John never explicitly names the Day of Atonement.  John, in his “poetry,” leaves it out.

Christ in Prayer, El Greco

And here I want to turn to the “High Priestly Prayer” in John chapter 17, the last portion of which we heard in today’s Gospel.  Without naming the Day of Atonement nor quoting from Leviticus (the book in which the Bible describes the Day of Atonement (Lev 16)), Jesus in John prays a three-fold prayer similar to what the High Priest would have prayed on the Day of Atonement.  As the high priest would have done, Jesus first prays for 1) himself: “Father… glorify your Son… glorify me… with the glory I had in your presence before the world began” (17:1 & 5).  Next, as the high priest would have done, Jesus prays for 2) those near to him: “Holy Father… protect them [my disciples] from the evil one… [and]  Sanctify them in truth” (17:11, 15 & 17).  And finally—again, as the high priest would have done—Jesus prays 3) for all the people of God: (from today’s lesson) “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (17:20).  By this three-fold prayer—as would the High Priest have consecrated Israel—Jesus consecrates his disciples before he goes to the cross to make atonement, so that through them “the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21) and “may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:23).

If we are to be faithful disciples of Jesus our “high priest” and to be sanctified and to be part of Jesus’ ministry of “drawing all people to himself” (12:32), we will be helped by remembering.  Remembering that—as we live in a fallen and broken world, a world so fallen, so broken, that, as happened in Texas this past week, a gunman can massacre children at school —though atonement may seem a long way off, yet atonement—a day when “all may be one”—someday will come.

Our Eucharist, the weekly ritual in which we “do this in remembrance of me,” is the primary way in which we remember.  The Eucharist may seem an insufficient response to the horrific violence of this past week and the grief we now feel, yet it is by our remembering Jesus’ atonement that we Christians can over time help Jesus “draw all people to [him]self.”  It is not easy to remember atonement, especially in the face of such violence; and it will require sacrifice and maybe a long journey.  And maybe just maybe poetry has something to teach us about atonement, about leaving things out: leaving out our certainties, for example, that our views on, say, guns are “right” and others “wrong,” leaving space in which we might genuinely listen and search for a way forward, leaving space for others to surprise us.

Since we’ve been speaking about poetry, I am going to leave us with a poem that ostensibly is about monarch butterflies and Lake Superior and a long ago  disappeared but remembered mountain around which the butterflies migrate… but which really might be about us and our remembering and an unseen yet still present atonement by which John invites us as Jesus’ disciples to steer a course.  Here is “The Butterflies the Mountain and the Lake” by the contemporary American poet Shane McCrae:

the / Butterflies monarch butterflies huge swarms they
Migrate and as they migrate south as they
Cross Lake Superior instead of flying

South straight across they fly
South over the water then fly east
still over the water then fly south again / And now biologists believe
turn to avoid a mountain

That disappeared millennia ago

I pray that God may give us the grace to remember this “mountain” of atonement, seemingly disappeared yet still present in our world; and that we may let it and our “high priest” chart our life’s course.  For someday, through God’s working of atonement in Jesus Christ, our world’s guilt, violence, hatred and division can be transformed, such that we “may be one…. I in them and you in me… so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”

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