I just finished reading a really fabulous book by Geraldine Brooks called Year of Wonders. It's a novel of the plague in England in 1665-1666. The book takes place in a village and is narrated by a young widow named Anna. When plague is discovered in this village the villagers, under direction of their charismatic young pastor, covenant to seal themselves within the village so as to avoid the spread of the disease to others. Needless to say, death runs rampant. Toward the end of the book, Anna is allowed some fleeting moments of beauty, only to have them smashed by a revelation that changes all she believes to be true. In the course of this revelation, some thoughts emerge about atonement, which is a theme that runs underneath throughout the course of the book.
That said, the next book I checked out from the library was Atonement by Ian McEwen. I haven't started it yet, but I've heard great things about it. And, of course, the main premise is on the nature of atonement and whether or not we can truly atone for our sins.
I was thinking last night that the theme of atonement has been with me through the past few novels I've read. It began with the novel Tamar by Mal Peet, a wonderful story of the Dutch Resistance in WWII. A mystery unfolds throughout the book in which another shocking revelation is revealed and a character seeks atonement. I've also read Jodi Piccoult's Change of Heart, in which a killer wants to donate his heart to save the child of the woman whose husband and older child he was convicted of killing. There is some question as to the legality of him donating his heart when he is sentenced to be executed by lethal injection, and a discussion of atonement ensues.
In the Christian faith, we don't talk a great deal about atonement. We have no Yom Kippur in which we corporately make restitution for our sins. We confess, yes, but rarely do we go from confession to penance. And I wonder, should atonement be part of our practice? Should we seek, in some way, to make amends for the sins we've committed? In truth, I don't think we can, and that would be for me the major flaw in atonement theory. We are human beings. It is in our nature to sin--"For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". We are incapable on our own of moving beyond our sin. We have tried. The Old Testament is full of individuals and nations seeking to atone for the sins they've committed. And they failed, every time. How many times did God have to redeem Israel? How many times did Israel fall away from God? God could not reconcile humanity to him through people's actions because people are sinful by nature. Therefore, God had to find another way.
Enter Jesus. God knew the only way to redeem humanity and to reconcile himself with his creation was to make the atonement for sin himself. Therefore, he sent Jesus, his son and a part of himself, to be the atonement for all of humanity's sins--"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son..." We cannot atone for our sins. There is no penance we can do that will make things better, but God can make us right again. God can provide reconciliation and closure. God had made our atonement for us. However, I don't think we just get a free pass when we sin. There are consequences to all actions, both positive and negative. I think, in a way, these consequences are our penance. We are forced to live with the consequences of our actions, yet, I believe that God can make good out of even the worst of these.
I also think it's important to make a difference between atonement and restitution. While God offers us ultimate forgiveness of our sins, I believe that we must seek out ways to make restitution to those we have sinned against. If we've knowingly hurt someone, we should make amends for that. I believe God wants us to be reconciled not only to him, but to each other as well. So while we can't atone for our sins, we can try to mend the hurts they have caused.
Ultimately, God is a God of forgiveness. He wants to be in relationship with us, and forgiveness is a huge part of that relationship. If we are unconditionally forgiven from our sins, then we must unconditionally forgive. As Shakespeare would say, "Aye, there's the rub." There's a big WORK IN PROGRESS sign plastered across my heart on this one. It's not that I'm incapable of forgiving, it's just that I find it a difficult thing to do when people are still hurting me or those I care about and love.
I know I have my own sins to be forgiven for (just for kicks sometime you should ask God to reveal your sins to you during prayer--it's very enlightening) and I am grateful that I don't have to atone for them. I would never get there! But God is so good, he loves me anyway. Now I need to pass that love on to others.
Blessings and Peace,