On the eve of Yom Kippur some Jews continue to practice an atonement ritual called Kapparot. I only found out about this when I was Googling away yesterday to find out more about how this day was kept and the papers carried some reports that a number of towns in Israel had banned public ceremonies involving this practice. It basically involves a live chicken (rooster or hen) being taken and swung over the head of a person whilst the prayer is said in Hebrew
‘This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (hen) will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.’
The bird is then given to be slaughtered and its then given to some charitable body. That all happens on the eve of Yom Kippur which is, of course, the Day of Atonement.
Reading about it reminded me of the passage in the Book of Leviticus (Leviticus 16) in which the rules for the keeping of this day are laid down. The passage ends
This shall be a statute to you for ever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. (Leviticus 16.29)
Today is the tenth day of the seventh month and as an alien residing for a time in this land I have been caught up in the way that this day, a Sabbath of Sabbath’s, is kept. The roads are physically blocked so that people cannot move about; the borders are closed so that people can’t get to work if they live in the Palestinian Authority, should they choose to. Most shops seem to be shut and even in the Muslim, Armenian and Christian Quarters of the Old City things are very quiet. The whole place has an eerie atmosphere.
So I read again Leviticus 16 just to be able to enter into something of the day. The rules of course involve the creation of the Scapegoat. Two goats are taken by the priest (Leviticus 16.7-8) and lots are cast. One goat is chosen to be a sacrifice and one goat is chosen to be the Scapegoat and taken off into the wilderness. After the first goat has been offered and sacrificed the priest is then told to
‘lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness’ (Leviticus 16.21)
The Pre-Raphaelite painter, Holman Hunt, painted a picture of the goat. It stands in a hostile and weirdly coloured environment, its head hangs low, it bears the burden of the sins of others. It has been led into the wilderness and abandoned. As with the chicken in the Kapparot ceremony the animal carries the burden of the sin of others.
As a Christian in Jerusalem you are constantly being confronted with the crucifixion. Though it is the city of the resurrection, of the ascension and of Pentecost it is the passion and death of Jesus that impinge on you so powerfully. The Via Dolorosa cuts through the Old City, the pilgrim stalls carry a vast array of crosses and Golgotha is always full of pilgrims eager to touch the spot where the cross stood.
I wandered round this atoning city – there is a great deal to atone for – and, needing a coffee half way through the morning, went into the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute. I have good memories of staying in that place recently and the coffee shop was open. But as I left I noticed a sign pointing to the ‘Shroud Exhibition’ – so I went in.
What is on offer (and it’s free) is an exhibition all about what we know as ‘The Shroud of Turin’. The purpose of the exhibition is to both tell the tale of the shroud, as much as that is known, and to convince the viewer of its authenticity. I found it fascinating. Some years ago I was in Turin and went to the Museo della Sindone and it was good to revisit the story. It made me think about this most revered relic, the cloth that covered the dead body of Jesus and bears this remarkable negative photographic image.
I don’t know whether it is the genuine article and to be honest that doesn’t bother me. What it does, like relics in general, I suppose, is to inspire faith and devotion amongst millions of people. But there was one thing in this exhibition that was so powerful and especially on this Day of Atonement.
The sculptor, Luigi Mattei, took the image from the shroud and has recreated it in bronze. There at the end of the exhibition is a life size sculpture of the image on the cloth. It was incredible to stand there looking at it – and to look into the face. Is this the face of the Scapegoat? Is this the face of the one who
‘bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness’ (1 Peter 2.24)
It has been a day of thinking and praying through what atonement means to me, looking into the face of this scapegoat, cast into a wilderness to deal with my sin. My sin, my ongoing sin. I don’t understand it all I realise in this city brought to a standstill yet again by thoughts of atonement. So I rely on a line from a poem by R S Thomas called ‘The Country Clergy’. At the end he simply says
God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.
I look into the face of the God who, in time and out of time, seeks to correct where I fail him, every time.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.