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Atonement Is More Than a Word

Fr Augustine Paul Hennessy, CP c. 1975by Augustine Paul Hennessy, C.P.
reprinted from Sign magazine - September, 1974
SpaceOccasionally, I come across a sentence which leaps off the page and strikes my mind or imagination like a bolt of lightning. Recently, I encountered such a sentence in a book by a Protestant theologian, Bishop F. R. Barry. He wrote: "Jesus was a man, not a theological symbol."
SpaceJust the danger warning that we might turn Jesus into a theological symbol instead of letting him be a living Saviour should be enough to make a thoughtful person stop and ponder the meaning of such a phrase. Fortunately, Bishop Barry hurried on to unfold his thought more elaborately. Of the Man Jesus, he said: "If his life and death are not related to the total field of human experience and to human nature in its heights and depths, if they do not interpret life as a whole, in its terrors as well as its caresses, if the gospel story does not satisfy all men's spiritual needs and hungers, including the deep unconscious needs of the psyche, then it cannot be the religion of mankind."
SpaceIf there is one yearning common to the religious instinct of all mankind, it is a longing for deliverance from some disruptive force which men find in their own hearts. There are perils of divisiveness among all human beings which shake and split and splinter mankind like an earthquake. The only world that men seem able to design under the impetus of their own egotism is a world resembling a city in shambles. There are rifts in human affairs where there ought to be cohesiveness. There are yawning death traps where there ought to be solid ground. There are fragmented egos where there ought to be whole persons.
SpaceIt does not require a great gift of imagination to see that mankind has made a mess of its own world. We climb out of the pit of barbarism an inch at a time.
SpaceYet the religion of Jesus Christ is a religion of optimism. He is the timeless assurance that God so loved the world-this messy, disrupted, mixed-up world-that he plunged his well-beloved Son into the very core of the maelstrom. Jesus is a man. Not a theological symbol. He belongs to us as one who has felt the world's pains. He has returned to the Father, but he has not left us orphans. The Spirit of Jesus has been set loose to bring healing touches to every corner of the world. The power of that life dwelling abundantly in the glorified flesh of One Man is ceaselessly infiltrating and gradually transforming the stubborn strains of disruptiveness which still thrive in the flesh and spirit of his members. Word by word, touch by touch, Jesus, the Man transcending time, is making mankind new.
SpaceWe call his work an atonement. This beautiful, old english word pulls into focus many biblical glimpses of God's romance with mankind and, however awkwardly, puts these insights into a single vision of togetherness.
SpaceAtonement means being made one. Oneness is at the heart of the word, because it is at the heart of the reality. Atonement is the aftermath of a breakdown of barriers. It is the reconciliation that comes after forgetfulness. It is the overcoming of estrangement. It is the embrace of forgiveness and acceptance anew, accompanied by tears of mingled joy and sorrow. Atonement is the answer to mankind's search for meaning-a promise of togetherness achieved by God's human presence among us.
SpaceSo atonement is more than a work or a word. Atonement is a living Person. We disfigure the meaning of atonement when we think of it as a kind of debt-paying to a hurt or angry Lover. Jesus was not a stand-in penitent for the rest of us. His being the atonement is not just a passing event of history. It is not accomplished once and for all like an apology made and accepted in the name of all his fellowmen. Jesus did not merely win for us an enduring claim upon the benign forgiveness of our Father. He is our atonement rather as One who has made his own destiny at-one with ours until the end of time. The Jesus who atones is One ever intent upon making his whole body new.
Space Atonement is a Man. Not a theological symbol. An embrace of lovers. A timeless love story.

Sign of the Passion
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Copyright 2004 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ, USA

Publisher: Terence Kristofak, C.P., Provincial Eastern Province
Editor: Victor Hoagland, C.P. • Coeditors: Mary Ann Strain, C.P. and Kevin Dance, C.P.
Art Director: Sr. Mary Clement • CSAC Circulation: James Fitzgerald