Good Friday’s Scapegoat

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.Today is Good Friday, a sober, sombre day in the Christian calendar despite the fact that for the first time this week the sun is out, the sky is blue and the snow is starting to melt. But perhaps that is also symbolic in its way. Good Friday prefaces the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

I was brought up in the Christian tradition, and regularly sang: “There is a green hill far away without a city wall”. All my life I have been cursed – or perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise – with a literal mind, so as a small child I used to wonder about the green hill that didn’t have a city wall (it was eventually explained to me when I was about 9). What was never really made clear to me until I was an adult was the line “He died to make us good” because we clearly weren’t good.  But the hymns we sang at school were full of strange syntax that made them incomprehensible to our infant minds so I didn’t bother to ask about that.

I’m surprised, really, that I didn’t understand the essential message of Christ’s death and resurrection until so late in my life. I knew the Bible stories from an early age, and I’m sure somewhere along the line, among all the RI lessons that I sat through weekly at school for 13 years, somebody must have explained what “redemption” means.

I learnt enough Latin to know that it means buying back, and that when my parents paid off their mortgage it was redeemed. Later, after paying off my own mortgage, I had even deeper insights into that use of the word: it truly did feel like a load had fallen from my shoulders!

When I finally learnt about the Jewish custom of the scapegoat and the symbolism of blood sacrifice (Leviticus 16:18-22), it began to make sense. Why hadn’t it clicked before? The image of the scapegoat was so vivid that I can’t understand how I failed to make the connection. My evangelical Christian friends would tell me “He died for you!” but it had no impact on me because I couldn’t associate Christ’s death with myself, apart from being horrified at the brutality of it all.

Then one day the message hit home: on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the Jews symbolically placed all their sins on the scapegoat, which was turned out into the desert to die of starvation and deprivation, while the “Lord’s Goat” was offered as a blood sacrifice. In sacrificing himself, Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of all mankind. Perhaps that idea was just too simple and, at the same time, too immense for me to take in, until that moment of conviction.

So today we eat our hot cross buns, and remember what the Cross of Christ stands for. He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
and we shall go at last to Heaven
saved by His precious blood.

800px-Holman-Hunt-Scapegoat-(Manchester)Holman Hunt’s two paintings of the Scapegoat are described and explained here. I particularly like the conversation with the art dealer as recorded here.


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