"There is something peculiar in St. Luke's day, something calm and soothing connected with it; it occurs at a time when summer often revives a little before it finally goes, and sheds on us a parting smile; there is something in St. Luke's own character which speaks of healing to both body and mind, like the good Samaritan, into the wounds of both pouring oil and wine. We connect his Gospel especially with the Atonement, and the mercies of God to penitents;...To these we may add the personal history of St. Luke himself. In the service for the day he is brought before us as the faithful companion of St. Paul in the last view we obtain of the great Apostle....The recurrence therefore of this day is like the last gleaming of the year itself at this season, when a serene and bright interval precedes its close." (Isaac Williams, Sermon LXXXVIII)
Thus do we hear in a sermon by Isaac Williams, a 19th century English clergyman, student of John Keble (who is famous for his cycle of poems 'The Christian Year' about the themes of the Sundays and Red Letter Days as they occur in the Prayerbook) and member of the Oxford movement. Inasmuch as he mentions "atonement" as a central theme of Luke's Gospel, I think it is important that we spend a bit of time examining the Biblical concept of Atonement, particularly as it manifests in the observance of Yom Kippur, which began this year on the eve of September 27th. Leviticus chapter 16 gives us the necessary details of the observance of the Day of Atonement, beginning with a reminder of the deaths of the two sons of Aaron who were consumed by fire for making an unauthorised offering of incense. As a consequence of this (and it matters not whether they were literally consumed by "fire from the Lord"), Aaron is enjoined to observe the regulations of the law with care and exactitude and not to treat the divine ordinances with casual contempt. Among the offerings, he is to take two goats. One will supply blood to be sprinkled within the holy of holies while the other will serve as the 'scapegoat'. Per verses 21 and 22: "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat into the wilderness."
That the goat is sent bearing iniquity into an uninhabited land can be seen as an illustration of what later philosophers such as St. Augustine would call the non-being of evil. Bear with me here. He says: "All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its 'nature' cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed....Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist. From this it follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good." (Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 4)
So the sins of the community are sent away into a place that is perfectly identified with their pure nature of non-being, or "uninhabited-ness" if you will, which is a good lesson to us all as to both the interior dispositions which our sins create both within the self and within others (for everything we do has an impact on those around us, no matter how imperceptible) and their ultimate consequences should there be no acceptance of the insurmountable mercy of the Cross and its perfect ability to convert destructive non-being into the very fountain of all life-giving grace.
Something else to take away from the Day of Atonement is this. As the first day of the seventh Hebrew month marks the beginning of the religious new year, the celebrations of Yom Kippur on the tenth day are designed to help make a new beginning by asking forgiveness amongst one's acquaintances, fasting, not bathing and participating in extra prayers at the synagogue. On the eve of the feast, the Torah scrolls are removed from the 'Ark' and the cantor sings (in Aramaic) the Kol Nidre which translates as: "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."
This can seem a little unsettling when taken out of context. But, from the Jewish Encyclopedia: "The tendency to make vows was so strong in ancient Israel that the Pentateuchal code found it necessary to protest against the excessive estimate of the religious value of such obligations (Deut. 23:23). Rash and frequent vows inevitably involved in difficulties many who had made them, and thus evoked an earnest desire for dispensation from such responsibilities....The "Kol Nidre' was thus evidently developed from the longing for a clear conscience on the part of those seeking reconciliation with God." This problem of rash and excessive oath taking is also recognised in the New Testament. From St. Matthew's Gospel: "But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King....Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from the Evil One." (5: 34-35, 37) As indeed Jesus Christ here overcomes the need for swearing an oath and rather commands those who follow Him to simply tell the truth and to follow through on it, He also, being the perfect high priest surpasses the blood offerings in the Temple once for all and purifies all who believe in Him by the shedding of His own blood. There is no more need for a continuous purifying that is only symbolic. The sign-value of its usefulness is at an end. Calvary is thus both the last and the greatest Day of Atonement. The exclamation of the crowd gathered in Pilate's courtyard was even more true than they realised at the time: "His blood be on us, and on our children." And indeed that is the case for all who are in Christ.
There are some unique insights regarding this offering that are only to be found in St.Luke's narrative. At the institution of the Eucharist, this Gospel simply states: "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." The eschatological addition of "and for many", present in the other synoptic Gospels is absent here. Perhaps this is Luke the Physician emphasising the present, healing and reconciling quality of receiving communion for each individual in the moment as a personal reminder of both the Upper Room and Calvary, rather than choosing to emphasise the availablility of this self-same grace to generations of believers to come.
And, speaking of Luke as physician, the collect provided in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer differs from the American version thusly: "Almighty God, who calledst Luke the physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul; may it please thee, that by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed, through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
So, from the perspective of providing "wholesome medicines", he gives us the (unique to him) accounts of the Good Samaritan - wherein a broken body is treated and given time to heal- and the Prodigal Son - wherein a broken relationship is restored both by sincere repentance and unconditional love always on the lookout for a first inkling of desire to receive it.* And so here is revealed something else of the qualities of the living God that were (perhaps) not as accessible or explicit in the purifying rites of the Old Covenant.
It is both consistent and reasonable that these things, together with all else that is presented to us in the Gospels and reflected upon in the Epistles and the Apocalypse (and as they are cognizant of and in harmony with the traditions of the Old Testament, to be seen there as well), are meant to give us as complete a picture as we can comprehend of the Atoning work of Jesus Christ in His person and in His sacrificial death and Resurrection.
And so there is a lot to come to terms with here on this feast of the Evangelist St. Luke. But there is really only one critical thing to remember when thinking about the Atonement:
"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." (Lk. 15: 20)
*[The father (of the parable) himself, having inculcated the 'first cause' of this desire by his very nature (the example and care he gives his children as he raised them and into the 'present' day of the parable), models the great gift of God the Father in giving to us the even the desire to be saved and to receive his Son, thereby re-confirming the Church's opposition to the "diy" heresy of semi-Pelagianism wherein we would be able to be the source of our will to be saved. In saying this, it does not mean that our will to be saved is not free, rather that it is does not originate (is not capable of originating, cf. Original Sin) within our own will, but supplied (principally) through the perfect will of God the Father by the movement of God the Holy Ghost.]