When autumn brings chilly weather to much of the Northern Hemisphere, Jewish High Holy Days bring a turning inward, beginning with the start of a new year (Rosh Hoshanah) and culminating with a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which this year begins at sundown Wednesday.
The coming of Yom Kippur and its sacredness to the Jewish community have reminded me of the life-transforming nature of the process of repentance and atonement. Certainly Jesus taught about the importance of confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness.
Repentance demands a sincere determination to change one's mind and behavior - transformation, not just lip service. Teshuvah, one of the Hebrew words for repentance, literally means "return," describing an experience that's meant to bring about a return to one's true self. With this recognition of our atonement - our "at-one-ment" - with God, the letting go of sins becomes a daily process of reconciliation and renewal.
Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science, often declared our natural oneness with God in her major work, "Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures." In the chapter titled "Atonement and Eucharist" she defined atonement as "the exemplification of man's unity with God, whereby man reflects divine Truth, Life, and Love." She continued: "... if the sinner continues to pray and repent, sin and be sorry, he has little part in the atonement, - in the at-one-ment with God, - for he lacks the practical repentance, which reforms the heart and enables man to do the will of wisdom" (pp. 18, 19).
What she called "practical repentance" I understand to be a moment-by-moment "returning" to the truth of my oneness with God, a daily striving to act according to my highest sense of what's right.
The New Testament's book of James reflects the thought of an early Christian resolutely devoted to the Judaic law. It states: "Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it - he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:23-25, New International Version).
To me, the concept of reflection as a "perfect law" means that when we turn inward to reflect and ask for guidance on how we can do better, we don't repent in vain. We have the ability to change because we're actually reflecting, like a mirror, our genuine self as God's child: the image and likeness of God. Our duty to forgive and be forgiven becomes joyful and makes us feel lighter. We can cast off one at a time our wounds, grievances, and resentments.
Also in the book of James is the description of pure and undefiled religion as visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keeping oneself "unspotted from the world" (see 1:27).
Each of us is called to act upon this simple acceptance of our atonement with God. May we discover new ways to lift up our thoughts and to see our neighbor and all humanity in God's loving arms.
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?
shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves
of a year old?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly
with thy God?
Micah 6:6, 8