For many Yom Kippur is nothing more than two words that show up on our calendars in grey font and represent a holiday we know very little, if anything about.
Yom Kippur is the most holy day in Jewish history where the High Priest would be allowed to enter into the most Holy Place in the Tabernacle, the Holy Of Holies. Before I jump into this significance, let’s set the scene:
Before he reached for the linen cloth, he scrubbed his skin one last time with increased friction for good measure. Today wasn’t the day to be lazy with his cleanliness. The day of all days, the one the entire nation waited for was finally here: The Day Of Atonement. Carefully lifting the linen robe, he placed it over his shoulders. The process of preparation was one carefully followed, with no detail overlooked. To neglect an instruction pertaining to this day from The Most High God could mean death. Despite the caution that was mixed with fear and reverence, it was a day he had been waiting for all year.
He walked towards the structure. It was ornate, colorful, and beautiful. It was a place that God Himself had given instructions to build, specified every detail, the items inside, and the actions that occurred within.
His neighbors stared at him as he put one foot in front of another, and pushing his shoulders back he resolved to carry his head a little higher despite the weight of the day that clung to his back.
First he would go through the process of complete purification. Not only was it required that his body be fully cleaned, but his heart as well. It’s easier to scrub away the spots you can see. The unseen marks that would prefer to lay hidden in the deep recesses of the heart are another, more difficult matter.
He entered into the tabernacle, and took a few steps in. A familiar site to him, the Holy Place was the room before entering into the Most Holy Place. He was often in this room to pour oil into the lamp, and bread on the table. This room was comforting to him, and the place he found solace and peace. The veil was directly before him, and what lied beyond it was another matter entirely. Today was the one and only day he was permitted by Yahweh (the God of Israel) to enter beyond the veil.
With a deep breath, his fingers touched the veil. The bells sewn into his robe caught the flicker of the candles, and the rope around his ankle reminded him of what was at stake. In the event that he wasn’t pure when he walked into the Most Holy Place, the very Presence and the Glory of God would strike him dead. He heard the other two men enter behind him. If the bells rang, and then silenced, they would need to grab the rope and pull his body out from behind the veil. It was no small matter to be placed with the responsibility to come into the Presence of Yahweh and ask for the forgiveness of the sins of the people.
He asked the men to be diligent with the incense, and to add a little extra so the smoke would be thick around him. It was the smoke alone that would shield him from seeing the full Glory of Yahweh.
With a deep breath, shoulders back, and head bowed, he pulled the veil slightly back and stepped into the Most Holy Place.
We don’t know what that would have been like to step into the physical manifestation of the Presence of God. Although it might be fun to imagine and continue the story above, I want to stop short because even as I type, I want to proceed with caution and not to over fantasize the weight of this historical moment.
In the same way that we honor our personal heritage and the heritage of our country, we look back with wonder and awe over where our faith started. With one man, a High Priest, who once per year and after much prayer and confession, would fearfully step beyond the veil to ask Yahweh to forgive the sins of the people.
If you were standing before that same veil in the temple on the day Jesus died on the cross, you would have watched the veil miraculously be torn into two. What would have been more astounding is that you would have lived to tell about it.
Because of Jesus, He removed the veil (the wall) between Himself and all humanity and as His children, we are encouraged to step before the Throne not with fear, but with boldness.
Stepping into the Presence of God is no longer reserved for one chosen individual. There’s no full access to all who believe in Jesus.
The tabernacle was once a building that housed the Presence of God.
Today, as believers in Jesus, we are that place where God resides.
It’s no small thing to carry the Spirit of the Living God within you. Of course there’s benefits, like the peace that passes all understanding, guidance and direction, but there’s also a responsibility just like the priest, to be sure that we are confessing our sins before the Lord, keeping a pure heart, and conducting ourselves above reproach.
The next time Yom Kippur shows up on your calendar, I hope we’ll all take a minute to remember the fear, emotion, and excitement of what it would mean to step into the Presence of the Lord once per year, and the honor we carry today to have that same privilege anytime we desire.