Saturday, April 11, 2009

The heart of the Father

Within the Easter story, there is a supernatural, miraculous event that I wanted to explore in my reflections on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is the ripping of the temple veil. I am trying to wrap my mind around it, to gain a greater understanding of it, and I’m finding that it is a huge, well-published topic, but I wanted to share a little with you.

So what is the temple veil? At Christ's moment of death we are given to understand the Veil in the Holy Of Holy Temple in Jeruselem was torn asunder...

“The temple was divided into two portions, an outer room called the Holy Place in which a number of priests served, and an inner room called the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies. This inner room represented God's presence. It was so sacred that the only person allowed in was the high priest, and then only on one day of the year to make atonement for the sins of himself and the people. This sacred room, the Holy of Holies, was separated from the rest of the temple by an elaborate and beautifully embroidered curtain. According to Jewish descriptions of the temple, this curtain was truly massive—measuring some 30 feet wide, 60 feet high and three inches thick.”

“Back then in the Temple they would have a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. This was where the Ark of the Covenant had rested, and was considered to be the place where God resided. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies - and God's presence - once a year, and then only after an elaborate cleansing ritual; even then he would have a cord tied to his leg so that others could safely drag him out should he enter God's presence with unatoned sin.”

That got my attention right away, that the priest would have to be so clean, that if he has the slightest sin, he would have to be dragged from the temple by a rope tied around his leg, as he tried to make atonement for the sins of others by sprinkling the blood on the altar. I wonder how many priests got hauled out of the Holy of Holies? I know I’d never make it. And what about the humiliation of admitting that you might need the rope, because of oops that last thought or two?

***Heres a vivid earthy tale of everyday life on the day of the Lord's death:

Imagine you are a traveler who has been delayed on your way to the Passover feast in Jerusalem. Your donkey has gotten sick. Or the wheel on your wagon was broken. Or a favorite short cut has been blocked off. You have to get to the City before the Saturday Sabbath. As a devout person you are not allowed to travel on the Sabbath. You are moving as fast as you can this Friday. Then, at the noon hour, the sky turns black. Shadows mar your way. A storm arises. There are bouts of torrential rain. But you finally get to the gate of the City about two thirty in the afternoon. You pass a big crowd outside the gate. There seems to be some big commotion about some criminals the Romans are crucifying by the roadside. But you pay no attention. You are there for the religious holiday. You are set to get to the Temple. So you rush into the town, and along the streets where even in the rain many people are milling around and talking. You push on toward the Temple court yards. You are eager to get close to the holy of holies. You want to gaze through the Temple portals at the curtain: the splendid gold trimmed curtain that separates people from the presence of God, the inner sanctum, the place where only one priest a year may enter. As you arrive at the first court yard gate you see a family and some women in mourning. They are tearing their clothes apart, rending their garments in the traditional way of crying over the death of a loved one. You stop just a moment to share some empathy, some quiet with these mourners. But then you hasten on, up the dark shadowed steps. You go through two court yards, up to where you can normally gaze in at the curtain. The bottom of your robe is muddy and damp as you have skipped through the puddles. You get there, maybe just before three o'clock, that familiar place. It's really too dark to see. There is a lamp stand of candles inside the Temple near the curtain. If it weren't for those candles on this dark day, you wouldn't see the curtain at all. You take a deep breath. You have made it. You are at the Temple for the Holy Day, before Shabbat. Then – just then – the Earth starts to shake. You hear people screaming. Some things fall off the money-changers tables. You are in an Earthquake. The lamp stand of candles inside the Temple falls over. You fall down on your knees. Just then you hear a tearing and ripping sound. It is like the mourners who were rending their garments, only louder, more dramatic. The priests come running out of the Temple. You suddenly realize the rip is the veil of Temple. The great curtain is being torn from the top unto the bottom. You see it fall over what is left of the lamp stand. A great thud must be the curtain rod splintered and hitting the ground. A big cloud of dust comes out the Temple door. Some stones fall out of the portico. The Earth trembles. It slows. It stops. Some dust clears. People all around you are screaming and scurrying – looking for loved ones. But you are alone. You stand. You look inside. There is no longer a curtain. You, little old you, unimportant, insignificant you, you can look right into the place of God. There is no longer anything to separate you from God. On this Friday. This strange terrible Friday, something has changed. There is no longer anything to separate you from God. "

What a sobering and true thought, there is no longer anything to separate you from God.

I also want to share part of an imaginative, rich and full-bodied narrative of those events mixed with the truth of scripture:

"The gospel declares that the way to God is open for the child of God, because there was a loud rip that echoed in the temple when the veil of the temple was torn in two the moment Jesus Christ died upon the cross.

Picture it:
The thick, midnight darkness from high noon until 3 p.m. has been removed. Jesus has been crucified. The sun now shines again upon the gruesome scene on Golgotha, that skull-shaped mound outside of Jerusalem. All eyes are upon three men undergoing the unspeakable agony of crucifixion. The one in the middle, the central figure, has just pierced the end of three hours of silence and darkness with the cry: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” The light returns and He says: “I thirst.” They run and offer Him vinegar on a sponge. And no sooner has He sucked the vinegar out of the sponge than again He shouts in triumph, “It is finished!” Then, in confident serenity, He gives up His life: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” At that point His head drops, falls either to the right or the left, and He hangs in the limpness of death. Jesus of Nazareth is now dead. His lips are silent. There is no pulse or heartbeat or respiration. He is dead.

But then God came to speak. His Son, His beloved obedient Son, was silent in death, but God spoke. It was a language that everyone heard. It was eloquent. It was forceful. And it was glorious. It was the language of miracle. The gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the rending of the veil. We want to hear what God says in that miracle of the rending of the veil. Do you know what God was saying? He was saying that the way to His presence is open through the blood of His Son.

We read in Mark 15:38, “And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” Those are straightforward words. That is exactly what happened the moment Jesus gave up His life. The gospel according to Luke adds one detail. We read there, “The veil of the temple was rent in the midst,” that is, it was not torn off to the side, but smack dab in the middle — from the top down to the bottom.

What was this veil? It was the veil that hung in the temple between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies as God had commanded Moses. In Exodus 26:31-33 we read that that veil was made of blue, purple, and scarlet with the figure of cherubims upon it. It was a massive and thick veil. Do not think of a sheet or a film or even a towel. It was a thick veil, as thick as a man’s hand. And it was heavy. Rabbinical tradition reports that it took three hundred men to hang it. It separated the daily work of the priests in the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies on the other side, where the Ark of the Covenant of Jehovah rested. Only the high priest himself could go behind that veil once a year on the Day of Atonement. He had to go through an elaborate ritual of cleansing of himself and of his garments and bring with him the blood of the lamb to sprinkle over the mercy seat upon the Ark. No one dared pass through any other way. They would be struck dead. The high priest had to prepare and if he did not prepare, he would be struck dead. There was a thick veil that separated the intimate presence of God from the people.

What was the meaning of the veil? It meant that the way to God was not yet open. As long as that veil hung, it declared that the free and unfettered access to God was not yet possible. That is what we read in Hebrews 9:6-8, where the apostle speaks of the Old Testament tabernacle and the pieces of furniture.

He says this: “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle [that is, the Holy Place], accomplishing the service of God. But into the second [and that is the Holy of Holies] went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: the Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing.” Scripture tells us that as long as the veil hung, God was saying that the way into His presence was not yet open. It could be opened only by a full and a perfect sacrifice for sin.

Now back to the moment Jesus died. Scripture says that at the end of the three hours of darkness upon the cross and when Christ had uttered His voice in the loud cry, “It is finished,” and when He had commended His spirit into the hands of the Father, that the veil of the temple was torn from the top to the bottom, smack dab in the middle.

The priests must have been working at that time in the Holy Place, for it was the time of the Passover. They were preparing the evening sacrifices. The temple was busy. Suddenly, without warning, there was a loud crack. A rip echoed throughout the chambers of the temple. The veil was torn through as a clap of thunder from the top to the bottom. And it lay bare the whole inner sanctuary of the Holy of Holies. You could look into the place where they were told that they dare not enter or they would be struck dead.

What was the meaning? The meaning is this, the way is open into the presence of God through the Savior’s blood. God speaks in a way that no one can misunderstand. He says “You may gaze in; you may come into the Holiest; you may enjoy intimate fellowship with Me; you don’t need to be a priest; you don’t need a sacrifice of blood. It is accomplished.”

This is Scripture: Hebrews 10:19 We read, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Jesus has borne our sins in His body on the tree. He has made Himself a sacrifice in place of all appointed of Him of the Father. They are pardoned. The way is opened! The rending of the veil is the Father’s answer to His Son’s shout of triumph: “It is finished!” The Father responds, “Yes, it is finished. The salvation and redemption of My people is accomplished.” So God tore the veil in two. It is accomplished."

So as much as we rejoice and celebrate that fact that the stone was rolled away, I think we ought to remember and rejoice and celebrate that the veil was ripped in two. That we can approach God any time, without a priest and a blood sacrifice, that the final sacrifice has been made, through the blood of the Lamb.

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