Atonement for sin is a notion that pre-dates Christianity and probably even pre-dates Judaism.
Human nature has — or has had — a fundamental sense of justice whereby wayward deeds needed to be addressed and repaired. Mankind knew instinctively that the record had to be set straight and that a balance between good and evil had to be maintained. Failure to repent would result in a downward spiral that would just aggravate the human condition. Atonement to the gods or atonement to God was one way mankind dealt with the guilt that he experienced when he fell short of the ideals of his own conscience or short of the decrees of divine revelation. Atonement is simply a matter of justice.
The Jews had a deep appreciation of atonement, making the autumnal Day of Atonement the most solemn of their holy days. Their ritual sacrifices and cereal and animal offerings graphically illustrate their desire to make amends for their personal sins and for the sins of society. In Jesus Christ, of course, Christians believe that they have discovered the final and ultimate source of atonement for sin. The repairing death of Jesus Christ on Calvary atoned for all the sins of all mankind — the original sin of Adam and Eve, the excesses of the pagan world, the infidelity of the ancient Jews, the disbelief of the modern secular world, and, of course, the ungrateful sins of the Christian community itself. Atonement has been made and now simply needs to be claimed. Atonement is there for the asking.
Yet, sadly, atonement as a biblical concept and even as a human concept has just about disappeared from the modern believer’s consciousness — and conscience. The contemporary Catholic has little or no appreciation of a need to make amends for his or her sins. The need to offer sacrifices to God — either the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ or one’s own daily sacrifices — has disappeared entirely from present-day Catholic practice. There was a time when “offer it up” was a frequent if casual bit of advice offered among Catholics. But a tolerance for any suffering or even any inconvenience is no longer viewed as virtue. To consider offering up the torments of daily life would frustrate the modern need to be free of all restraint, all obligation — frankly, all duty. Atonement is too vivid a reminder that a man has fallen short of perfection, has erred, has sinned.
The authentic Christian, modern or ancient, must first of all admit his own sinfulness. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” wrote the ancient sage of that dread that comes upon a man when he compares himself to God Almighty. Man has to acknowledge his own inherent fatal flaws. He has to have a sense of sin. Once convinced of his sinful state, a man should intuit a need to repair that state through some sort of atonement. Natural man is doomed to a life of frustration since he can never fully atone for his own sins, let alone the sins of the human race. But the believer has Jesus Christ, who died in atonement for the sins of all mankind. Through faith and the sacraments, the Christian believer can claim as his own the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, making himself worthy to stand respectfully once again before the throne of God. Through Christ, satisfaction can be made for sin.
And more than that, the Christian believer can also join his own daily sufferings, insignificant though they be when compared to Christ’s agony, to the sufferings of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were infinitely meritorious. There is no adding to the redeeming graces won by Jesus Christ. Yet, the graces won by Jesus Christ have yet to be shared with so many brothers and sisters throughout the world.
At best, one sixth of the world can be counted as believing Christians. Who knows the graces that are called down from heaven on the unbelieving and weakly believing world because some obscure Christian has offered his “pains, works, joys and sufferings” to the Father in union with Jesus Christ? Holy Week is a graphic reminder, a living tableau, of the horror of sin and the kindness of God. When the believer realizes that his sins have placed Christ on Calvary, some impulse to atone, some urge to repair, some need to set things right, should arise in the soul.
An offering, a gesture, a sacrifice, however humble, meets that need.