I pause and fiddle with the knot in the rope. More than anything else, this piece of sturdy rope, strong enough to haul the weight of a man, brings home to me the awful solemnity of what lies ahead. The other priests who had assisted me step back, respectfully lowering their eyes to give me a moment’s privacy, and I realise that they have seen this reaction before, and probably expect it. It is a fearful thing to step into the presence of the Living God, and this rope is a reminder that I might not survive the experience. I remember the story of Uzzah, struck down for reaching out a well-intentioned hand to steady the Ark, and I shudder slightly, acknowledging the danger as real. Who am I that, of all the men of Israel, I should be called to come face to face with holiness? I know the answer: I am of the tribe of Levi, and can trace my direct descent, father to son, from Aaron himself. I am the high priest of Israel, ever since my father died, unexpectedly, a few months ago. Today, like every faithful high priest in our history, I must make my way past the curtain, into the holy of holies, and sprinkle the blood of sacrifice on the Ark itself, on the mercy seat. And if God should kill me, they will haul my body out by the rope.
And I ask myself: why?? Oh I know the easy answer, because God instituted it this way, that once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high Priest should enter the most holy place and sprinkle the blood of a slain bull before the Lord. It is the blood of sacrifice, that pays the death-price for our sin; it is also the renewal of the covenant between Israel and her God. I know that death is the punishment for sin, that all our sacrifices are giving an animal to take our place and pay the death-price for our human wrongdoing, but if every lamb and bull and goat n the whole great world were put to death, would our sin truly be covered and washed away in that unspeakable ocean of blood?
I have put on the special clothes, lovingly altered to fit me since I am a taller man than my father was, and in a few minutes more I will preside over the sacrifices (that part I am used to, it is my job), and the lots to choose the scapegoat, then I will take the basin with the blood of the slain bull, and pass through the curtain. I once asked my father what it was like to pass into that place and stand where no one otherwise would ever dare to stand. He was silent, as if he couldn’t find words, and trying to prompt him, I asked, “were you afraid?”
He looked at me then, as if from an infinitely far distance, and said, “No .. Yes .. no .. it’s not about whether you’re afraid. It’s not about you at all ..” I waited, wondering what he meant, and after a pause he continued, “You are Israel. You are all humanity, needing God and so far away from Him. And you are still yourself – broken and sinful, too small to carry the weight that has been placed on you ..” He shook his head, as if to clear it from a tangled torrent of thought. “I never told anyone this. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak it even now. But one day you will be high priest, perhaps you need to know. Perhaps one day you will understand this better than I do. Once, as a young priest I had a dream. I dreamt that I stood in the most holy place, and it seemed to me a most terrible thing that I should be there. For am I not also a sinner? But as I stood there, in dread and hesitation, with the bowl of blood so heavy in my hands that I nearly dropped it, I saw that another was standing there, and it was like His being was somehow joined with mine. His eyes were not cast down with shame, they were bright and clear with compassion and incredible joy. He took the basin from my sagging hands, and I noticed that His hands were wounded. And as He moved to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat, it was as if the blood flowed from Him, and as it did all the furnishings dissolved away into light, and the great curtain behind me tore apart, forcefully, as if it was no longer strong enough to dam back the mighty tide of glory that was pouring in. And somewhere a great voice cried, “It is Finished!”, and then a chorus of voices from the ends of the earth took up the cry. .. Every time I enter the most holy place, I remember that dream, and I know that somehow, though we are the ones who kill the sacrifices and drive forth the scapegoat, somehow it is God Himself who makes atonement.”
I remember my Father’s words. It is time to begin. This day I will step past the curtain with trembling, for I am a man, and yet I will go with a strange joy, for somehow it is an invitation to walk forward into the heart of God.