“A Torn Curtain”
Friday April 2, 2010
Isaiah 52: 13-53:12
Hebrews 10: 16-25
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
One of the most intriguing details that is included in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts of the crucifixion is the strange mention of the fact that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
It is a strange occurrence, since there is nothing in the Gospel texts that foreshadows or anticipates the tearing of this curtain, nor is there any interpretation of the meaning of this event included in the Gospels themselves.
And yet, as with so many of the events in the Gospel accounts, we all seem to know that the full significance of the tearing of that curtain is not limited to its literal meaning. That is, we all know that this torn curtain signifies something more than a ripped piece of cloth. And the fact that three of the four Gospel writers deemed it to be significant enough to include it in their accounts of Christ’s death attests to the fact that we are meant to pay attention to this strange occurrence.
So what does the torn curtain mean?
In order to ponder this question, we must begin by asking what role the curtain in the Temple played. And in order to understand its role, it is necessary for us to delve deeply into ancient passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In 2 Chronicles 3, the details of Solomon’s Temple were laid out for the people. Included in that list of instructions for how the Temple was to be constructed and furnished, we read, “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah…He made the most holy place; its length, corresponding to the width of the house, was twenty cubits, and its width was twenty cubits; he overlaid it with six hundred talents of fine gold.” Housed within that Temple was the mysterious Ark of the Covenant which reportedly held the Ten Commandments among other sacred objects, and which was viewed as a talisman-like object which symbolized God’s presence among the people.
The Ark of the Covenant – that symbol of God’s powerful presence with the people – was located was in a small inner courtroom called the ‘Holy of Holies’. According to the directions given to Solomon, an elaborately fashioned curtain was to hang at the entrance of the Holy of Holies. An elaborately fashioned curtain was to hang at the entrance to the Holy of Holies in order to signify the radical distance that existed between the sinfulness of the people and the holiness of God. That curtain between the sacred and the profane was meant to keep the divine and the human apart, separated from each other, distant. Once a year – on Yom Kippur – the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the desire to seek atonement and forgiveness for the people. As a result, as 2 Chronicles tells us, “Solomon made the curtain of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and worked cherubim into it.”
Solomon’s Temple was destroyed during at the time of the
Babylonian conquest, and though the people rebuilt the Temple in the days of
Ezra and Nehemiah, we have very little indication about the exact details of its
The next major development in the history of the Temple actually took place during the rule of Herod, when Herod oversaw a massive renovation campaign to restore and re-dignify the Temple. It was about that large renovation project that Jesus spoke when he spoke of a Temple that could be thrown down and rebuilt in three days. The Holy of Holies was a part of this renovated, reconstructed Temple, but rather than having one curtain, there were actually two curtains that were hung -- to again ensure that those outside would not be able to catch a glimpse into that most holy of holy places. The Holy of Holies, in that reconstructed Temple lacked any adornments or furniture, however, largely as a result of the fact that the Ark of the Covenant had been lost to history after the Babylonian exile. Still, those curtains were hung in order to symbolically ensure that the divine and the human were kept apart, separate, distinct, distant.
But that curtain, that separation was not, primarily, intended to keep people from God; rather, it was intended to protect people from God. That is, just as the people of Israel, at Mount Sinai, had not been allowed to go up the mountain with Moses lest they be destroyed in God’s presence, there had been a strong theme woven through the entire spirituality of the Jewish people that God’s power, though grounded in steadfast love and mercy, was nonetheless not to be trifled with. They imagined God as a consuming fire, a raging lion, a deity who was not even to be spoken about in vain, let alone gazed upon.
The presence of the curtain, in the Temple, was intended to remind the people that God’s presence was so holy that to allow it to mix with the merely human would expose humanity to the threat and danger of a deity that was perceived to be powerful, potentially wrathful, and ultimately beyond the human capacity to comprehend of interact with that holy presence.
But then Jesus died. And the curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom.
And, in that moment – if even for a moment – the division, the separation, the distance between the human and the divine fell away. No longer were humans protected from gazing at the powerful, almighty, fearful presence of God in this world.
Finally, the curtain was removed. Finally, people could see God’s presence in this world.
And what did they see?
What did they see when the curtain was torn?
They saw a suffering, beaten, humiliated, crucified, dead man. Instead of a God of power, they saw a vulnerable Messiah.
The scandal of that glimpse continues to stand at the heart of the Christian faith. The scandal of that glimpse continues to cause us to reel at the mystery of the cross. The scandal of that glimpse continues to be a stumbling block to some, and mere foolishness to others.
But the scandal of that glimpse is the reason why we gather here today. We bow, this day, before the mystery – and the scandal – of a crucified Messiah. We bow, this day, before a deity who can suffer for the sake of love. We bow, this day, before a God who willingly experienced death. We bow, this day, before a God whose almighty power was demonstrated in mortal vulnerability.
And the scandal of the cross continues to stand before us, and to judge us. Because, in that glimpse, we realize that we killed the holiest of the holy; we killed the messenger of the new covenant; we killed the One who came to bring us life.
But there is good news for us, even in this scandalous proclamation. And the good news is written of in today’s reading from Hebrews which invites us to see, and to understand the curtain as nothing less than the broken flesh of Christ himself, whose death has opened to us the pathway to God.
19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.