For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
—Psalm 51: 16,17 (KJV)
Catholic Thoughts on Yom Kippur
This Tuesday evening, September 18th, begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the holiest religious holiday for Jews. Last year I told how my previous Jewish practice of atonement—asking forgiveness from God for sins committed during the year and from people whom I’d hurt—differed from my present practice as a Catholic, seeking forgiveness from God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, I do not try to speak directly to God, but through a priest, who, persona Christi, acts as confessor and metes out penance.
There are two other issues I’d like to discuss:
- how (and whether) the 9th Step of the 12 Step Program meshes with my previous practice of atonement during Yom Kippur and whether it is consistent with what I do during the Sacrament of Confession;
- will some in the Church emulate the ancient Jewish practice of figuratively sending out a Yom Kippur scapegoat to carry away their own sins?
Let’s turn to the first of those.
Step 9 of 12, Making Amends
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
—Step 9 of the 12 Step Program (AA, Al-Anon, NA, OA, Adult Children of Alcoholics,…)
The first Thursday of every month our men’s Twelve Step Group spends the hour discussing one of the Twelve Steps. September is the ninth month, we talked about Step 9. This Step is about making amends to people we had hurt or harmed, which is also what the observant Jew does during Yom Kippur. And I thought “how great that Yom Kippur this year comes in September.” (The month varies, just as for Easter, because the religious calendar goes by lunar months.) So I brought up the Jewish practice: you ask someone you have hurt or harmed for forgiveness; if they don’t forgive you, you ask again; if they still don’t forgive you after you’ve asked twice, you’ve done your best.
The men in the group regard me kindly, but as an odd member of the Twelve Step zoo: I’m a cranky old physicist, I rarely drop the f-bomb, and my sins and road to recovery have not followed the pattern typical for those in the meeting. Nevertheless, they thought that was a good way to make amends: do your best but don’t split a gut doing so. (Moderation in all things?)
Satisfaction as Part of Penance
I also thought of Catholic penance in connection with sins against people. “Satisfaction” is part of penance in Confession. In a sense, it represents “payment” for what we have done wrong. As the Catholic Catechism (Article 1459) has it:
Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). … Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin:[emphasis added] he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”
In all my acts of Confession, I don’t recall that any priest required that I do satisfaction for a person I had harmed, that is, had me make amends to that person. But perhaps my sins against people were not numerous enough to constitute a good statistical sample. Nevertheless, I believe that the Twelve Steps, Yom Kippur atonement, and Catholic Confession follow consistent practices in making amends—giving satisfaction—for sins against others. But only the Sacrament of Confession can yield true forgiveness for our sins.
Let’s see whether the practice during Yom Kippur of sending off a scapegoat to carry away sins might be carried out (figuratively) in our day, and who would be the likely scapegoat.
The Yom Kippur Scapegoat: Sending off the Sins of the People
An account (from Wikipedia) of the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual is given below:
The scapegoat was a goat that was designated (Hebrew לַעֲזָאזֵֽל ) la-aza’zeyl; “for absolute removal“, (for symbolic removal of the people’s sins with the literal removal of the goat) and outcast in the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, that began during the Exodus with the original Tabernacle and continued through the times of the temples in Jerusalem.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol [the High Priest, a Cohen, son of Aaron] sacrificed a bull as a sin offering to atone for sins he may have committed unintentionally throughout the year. Subsequently he took two goats and presented them at the door of the tabernacle. Two goats were chosen by lot: one to be “for YHWH“, which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the scapegoat to be sent away into the wilderness. The blood of the slain goat was taken into the Holy of Holies behind the sacred veil and sprinkled on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant. Later in the ceremonies of the day, the High Priest confessed the intentional sins of the Israelites to God placing them figuratively on the head of the other goat, the Azazel scapegoat, who would symbolically “take them away”.
Placing the sins on the head of the goat was symbolically accomplished by tying a red ribbon onto the horns of the goat, as shown in the featured image. One other point from the account above deserves emphasis: the unintentional sins of the high priest himself were to be removed by a sacrifice of a bull. The scapegoat was to carry off the intentional sins of the people, not those of the High Priest.
We have seen during the recent Catholic scandals that Cardinals have resigned or been removed from their duties; that those bishops who covered up or ignored sexual sins of priests in their diocese have had their names removed from plaques, schools, and hospitals. To what end? The scapegoats weren’t effective in olden times, and they aren’t now. Those in the hierarchy who have committed sexual sins or have been responsible for covering up the sins of others must be the ones to confess their sins, do penance, and give satisfaction, even if at the very least this penance requires that they resign from their positions of authority.