Day of Atonement: Apology and Forgiveness

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Chalice lighting

We arrive in this place today

Each of us a complicated being

With dreams and longings

With strengths and power

With fears and disappointment

Life’s hardness has made us cautious and sometimes prickly

It has also given us the power of compassion

We are able to hurt and to make amends for hurting

We are able to have anger but also forgiveness for those who hurt us

May this light shine on what is best in us

May our compassion and love lead to reconciliation amongst us

And help us to bring peace wherever our journeys lead

Reading: Consolation, by Wisława Szymborska and translated by Clare Cavanagh


They say he read novels to relax, 

But only certain kinds: 

nothing that ended unhappily. 

If anything like that turned up, 

enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not, 

I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places, 

he’d had enough of dying species, 

the triumphs of the strong over the weak, 

the endless struggles to survive, 

all doomed sooner or later. 

He’d earned the right to happy endings, 

at least in fiction 

with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable 

silver lining, 

the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, 

the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, 

fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, 

stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, 

good names restored, greed daunted, 

old maids married off to worthy parsons, 

troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, 

forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, 

seducers scurrying to the altar, 

orphans sheltered, widows comforted, 

pride humbled, wounds healed over, 

prodigal sons summoned home, 

cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean, 

hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, 

general merriment and celebration, 

and the dog Fido, 

gone astray in the first chapter, 

turns up barking gladly 

in the last.

Message, part 1

This Wednesday is the Jewish "Day of Atonement" – in Hebrew, it is known as Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, Jews pray and fast all day, and acknowledge their failures over the previous year. 

Most importantly, Yom Kippur is a day for repairing relationships. It is a day for making apologies and for giving forgiveness. 

Because none of us is perfect, Yom Kippur speaks to all of us. I doubt that there is a single person among us who doesn’t regret something they did or said over the past year. And I doubt there is anyone who is not holding on to anger toward another person – perhaps many people. Perhaps those people are here in this room.

Each year, we mark Yom Kippur because of the universality of failure and mistake. We mark it not because we are bad people. It’s especially because we are good and our guilt and our anger therefore eat away at us. 

Our errors at Yom Kippur are referred to in the Jewish tradition as sins – a heavy word imbued with notions of original sin from other religious traditions. It may suggest to us some kind of inherent badness we’re all born with and that we are intrinsically bad and in need of being fixed in some way to make us good.

In the Jewish tradition, the Hebrew word translated as sin is very different. It comes from archery where it signifies missing the mark.

“I aimed to be a certain kind of person. I missed the yellow bullseye.”

So, maybe you hit red circle instead – not so bad. Maybe you hit the blue or the black or maybe you missed the target altogether. Yom Kippur is not about saying you are a terrible archer or a terrible person. It is a time to reset and aim better next year. A time to repair damaged relationships and begin again along a path of love.

Reading: The Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - 

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Message, part 2

The English name for Yom Kippur is “Day of Atonement”. The word “Atonement” may not feel much better than the word “sin” – like the line in Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, about walking “...on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” Atonement may sound more like  punishment than anything else.

But the word atonement has an interesting history. It was created in the early 16th century to mean literally “at-one-ment” – the process of reconciling and becoming – once again – one.

Yom Kippur is about reuniting and reconciling with one another and it is a day for reconciling with our own selves.

We know that reconciliation is about apology and forgiveness. Both are hard – very hard. It’s so much more likely that our apologies will be half-hearted and our forgiveness only tentatively given. 

If I apologise because I feel like I should to make peace, to smooth things over, to end the discomfort – then my apology may be little more than words. It is only a deep apology if I truly recognise what I have done to harm another, why it hurt, and more – that I am fully prepared to change my ways. To apologise sincerely puts our pride at risk. It forces us to let go to some extent of the good, kind, caring person we want to think we are. We are all imperfect – that lofty self-image is an aspiration and it is only realised when we stop, reexamine, recognise where we missed the mark, and resolve to do better next time.

Forgiveness is no easier. If you apologise, I may forgive you because I know it’s the right thing to do. I might say the words but not truly forgive. To forgive in a sincere and deep way means that I understand what made you do what you did and I know that you regret it sincerely. It means that I believe that you fully intend to avoid the same behaviour in the future.

Apology and forgiveness are very deep practices. They are practices that require love – a sincere interest and commitment to the other person’s happiness.

Sometimes, despite true apology and forgiveness, there can be no reconciliation. There may be too much danger. Trust may be irreparably damaged. Each person must decide for themselves how much risk there is and how much they are willing to chance in the interest of the relationship.

Most of the time, although it may be very hard, reconciliation is possible. The work to get there may be great for both people involved. The work is loving work. It is peacemaking work. It is hopeful work.

Today is a day to forgive, to reconcile, to bring together all that we are. Today is a day to become at one. To become whole.

May it be so.

Closing words

Let us go on our way now

Aiming true and adjusting when we miss the mark

Let us go ahead without shame

Let us move forward together

Becoming at one with ourselves and one another

We begin again in love