A Jewish friend of mine knows all about birds, and she told me this week that she had spotted the seasonal return of the white-crowned sparrow in her garden. She explained that they often return during the ten days between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Atonement calls for confession, repentance, and being once again put right with God. Christians see Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as providing our atonement, our at-one-ment with God, as my Bishop Morse of blessed memory often said. We examine our hearts, our minds, our deeds, and consider what we did wrong. We desire to wipe these wrongs off the slate of our soul so that the wall of sin separating us from God is vanquished, just as death is vanquished by Christ’s sacrifice.
So welcome, white-crowned sparrow, to remind us of life and death. Just so, Christ reminds us in the Gospel lesson this morning that we are to remember that if our loving Father cares for the “birds of the heaven” he will care for us. We are not to serve two masters, not make idols of the many temptations in our lives. “Be not anxious for your life… consider the lilies of the field…”
And as St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” So we offer our lives and all of our worries and needs and yes, our confessed sins, to Our Lord, and he makes sense of them. He returns what we need a thousand fold. As our preacher said, these are returned purified of the sin that was in them. We are at-one with him.
I have found that releasing my sins to Our Lord is like releasing birds into the air. It is a kind of rebirth, a resurrection, to be forgiven again and again, to start anew with a fresh slate. But I must take the time and embrace humility in order to make a full accounting of my life. Are there idols – other masters – that demand worship and service? How do I spend my time, this precious time given to me, my very life? Have the words of my mouth been acceptable to Our Lord?
The Christian life is a glorious one. It is, as our preacher said, good news, gospel. And so it is. Yet it demands self-examination, a purifying, an atoning for our wrong turns so that we will order our loves rightly. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik writes recently in the Wall Street Journal in his essay, “The Meaning of a Yom Kippur Prayer,” that the liturgy combines “the notions of human fallibility and freedom, which together comprise the foundation of repentance and the Day of Atonement itself.” It is our recognition of our human fallibility, our sin, and the use of our free will, our freedom given by our loving God, that “help to heal the past.”
It is this God-given freedom that allows us to stray and it is this freedom that allows us to admit our wrong turns and like the prodigal son, return home. Western Civilization has been founded upon freedom, this free will to choose, but to repent and atone, and thus relies on these Judeo-Christian values. To abandon this foundation of atonement, as many desire, is to chart a destructive path into the future, to sail into dangerous waters. We pray this will not happen to the West and thus to the world.
And so it begins with each one of us. I have found that if I consider every thought and action of the day, cleaning out my heart, I am able to make room for Our Lord to enter in. I am able to wait, watch, and wonder as my life unfolds before me in marvel-ous ways I could never have seen or expected. Sufferings are sent packing into the beauty of atonement. Grief too, is transformed by rebirth. Bit by bit, day by day, with the help of the Church and her faithful family, my mind learns the art of living for a living God, my heart learns the art of loving for a loving God, and my soul learns the art of singing like the white-crowned sparrow, a song of freedom and flying.
We gathered for coffee and snacks after Mass this morning, and the chatter flew among us like birds soaring. One thing leads to another, one story to another, and in the sharing of our loves and lives we see the Holy Spirit dancing among us. For we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and it is this humility and honesty that we share that unites us as the Bride of Christ, the Church. It is this belief in the God of Abraham, in the Holy Trinity, in our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, and all that is taught, all the creeds and hymns and prayers, all the sacraments and Scriptures – all of this is part of the Atonement, the at-one-ment with God, giving us many moments of heaven on earth.