The Catholic Thing
That Tekhelet Sky Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Sunday, 18 July 2010

In first-century Jerusalem, a thick linen veil (described by Josephus as bearing a depiction of the heavens) separated the two main chambers within the Temple of Solomon [see Ching Yim's comment below]: the Greater House from the Holy of Holies. This second, elevated room was a windowless cube and could only be entered by the High Priest and by him only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It contained the Ark of the Covenant. But not only that – which would have been enough (Dayenu!) – it was the Shekinah, the dwelling place of God among His people. The veil was woven with blue and purple and crimson threads. The blue, called Tekhelet, was probably made with dye from a marine snail and is said to have been the color of the midday sky.

It was midday when that veil was rent at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, although the three-o’clock sky eclipsed from blue to black-as-night. As St. Mark tells it (15:33-38):

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” . . . Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

For Mark this end was clearly in parallel with the beginning of the Lord’s ministry. In his rendition of the story of Christ’s meeting in the Jordan with the Baptist, Mark adds a detail that the other Gospel writers do not (John doesn’t mention the baptism at all). He tells us (1:10) that the heavens were rent.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

You’ll soon see where I’m going with this, but here I note a remarkable facet of the story: the veil is torn from the top down, exactly as during Christ’s “trial” the High Priest, Caiaphas, had rent his garments, which by law (Leviticus 21:10) he was forbidden to do. What may have been roiling in the mind of Caiaphas we will never know, but surely it was a reaction to (a sense of) something greater than simple blasphemy. As the estimable Roy Schoeman has pointed out, in his book Salvation is from the Jews, that night was unprecedented in many ways. The trial of Jesus “on the eve of the Passion entailed no less than 27 violations of Jewish law, any single one of which would be sufficient to nullify the verdict of the Sanhedrin.”

But that veil . . . It is more than a physical object: it was and is a symbol of the separation of mankind from God, and the coming of Christ was the destruction of the veil, the re-union of us and Him. Except, of course, the veil remains, because the veil is sin, the thing that has separated us from God from the very beginning – from Eden onward. Some saints, chastened by penance, have been gifted with visions of heaven, the veil lifted. What do they see? Depends upon the saint. But some I’m sure have simply seen what we all see but with the true meaning of things exploding out of every object, every face, every space.

Other religions are aware of this veil. In the East it’s called maya. Etymologically maya means “not that,” which is not bad as a definition of the problem. It describes the illusion that keeps one from achieving true liberation, which is moksha or satori or Nirvana or whatever. But down those paths is oblivion, not heaven or hell.

For Catholic saints and mystics and even some lesser contemplatives, lifting the veil, seeing the mystery is far from oblivion; it’s usually a vision either of heaven or hell or, now and then, purgatory. Analogies go up in smoke. The mystic is there. It’s not “not that” anymore but the That or the There – which is the Truth to which Christ bore witness. The ecstasies of St. Teresa of Avila and her compadre St. John of the Cross were the ascents of their souls to the “devotion of union” and even their minds and bodies release from the bonds of earth – literally. 

It’s as though the two halves of the rent veil have settled back together . . . but God’s breath blows them apart just enough to give the blessed woman or a man a glimpse of eternity.

What I’d love to write next is: And here’s how you do it! But I seem stuck on weak ascetics. Up to my eyeballs in analogies.

Is it that we’re all too mesmerized, as it were, by the blandishments of friends, and the sparkle of faraway stars, and that Tekelet sky on a cloudless day? I so enjoy the crack of the ball off of Jeter’s bat, and the almost brackish sweetness of the first sip of a Vesper, and the jolt in my shoulders when I pummel the heavy bag. Is this mystical theology? Am I a saint in the making? No and no. For now anyway. The veil covers me.

But I’m reminded every day that Jesus, a Jew, was in the great Temple but never in the Holy of Holies. He didn’t need to be. He is the Holy of Holies. And what is there (besides my wife and my children) greater in my life than the Passover Seder I daily share with Him at Mass? I look up at a lovely stained-glass window of the Crucifixion and see the Marys in tears and want to shout out: Women why do you weep?

I’m not in ecstasy, but it’ll do. For now.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and the author of several books, including
The Compleat Gentleman.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
The Second Temple had no Ark of the Covenent
written by Ching Yim, July 19, 2010
Dear Mr. Miner,
Your article is incorrect on an important detail. The Temple in the 1st Century was the Second Temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile and "improved" by Roman client king Herod I "the Great". The Ark of the Covenent was lost during the Caldean capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple, the Temple of Solomon (e.g. see Jeremiah 52:12-27) - the lost of the Ark was not explicitly mentioned but presumed. Some Jewish traditions mentioned Jeremiah himself came into the procession of the Ark and hid it. In any case, the Ark was never found again, and in the Second Temple, the Holy of Holies did not contain the Ark but was empty. The Presence of the Lord, the Shekinah, was there, even with the physical absense of the Ark.
Ching Yim
written by Scott Hesener, July 19, 2010
The noun, not the verb.
Brad, you have packed so much into this brief article, that one could add water for days.
As my mentor, Morris Smith would say, "That'll preach."
About the ark...
written by Barbara Kaine, July 19, 2010
It is not just Jewish tradition that mentions Jeremiah hiding the ark. It is expressly stated in 2 Macc 2:7 that he hid the ark in a cave and the trail was hidden.

I am not trying to be nitpicky. Just wanted to share that.
The Lord desires
written by Adam, July 19, 2010
Wonderful article! Very pleased to see the thoughts culminating with the holy liturgy - for that is of course our inheritance from the rending of the veil. When our Lord describes himself as the Temple, what was he claiming? What was the temple, but the specific means through which the Lord would mercifully condescend to dwell among his people. Christ is the fulfillment of that desire to dwell among us, hence the rending, He is for us forever the shekinah. And he said he would not leave us, so he gave himself up for us in an eternal sacrifice to the Father that we still celebrate today - the fruit of the rent veil is the Eucharist. Praise be to God.
A living workshop
written by Emina Melonic, July 20, 2010
Your essay seemed to me to be a manifestation of what Desert Fathers wrote. Byzantine theology was (as I am sure you know) all about unity of earthly (everyday and intellectual) and the mystical. Denys the Areopagite wrote about beauty as a visionary process that leads to the purification of man's soul that leads into the ultimate unification ... See Morewith God. St. Maximus the Confessor, similarly wrote about human act of work, in which he stated that "man is a living workshop." Everything is about unifiied human experience. You mention St. Teresa of Avila...who can know more about the earthly and the mystical than her? She was certainly not divorced from the everydayness of God's creation; she was straight forward and clear.
I just want to say I love all you!
written by debby, July 23, 2010
loved this article! one of the best at TCT, at least as it personally relates to my relationship with God. (not to detract from the very wonderful "informational" articles...) but i want to also say to all the comment writers that i long for Heaven because i long to be with Him AND i cannot wait to meet all of you, my brothers and sisters, to fellowship with you forever and ever. i read your astute comments and although i am one of your lessor educated little sisters, your love for Him is so infecting! thank you all for wedding (as did St. Thomas Aquinas & St. Augustine, among others)scholarly thought with great devotion. keep posting and teaching!
written by HURSTBernadette32, May 24, 2011
People in every country get the mortgage loans from different banks, because it's comfortable and fast.

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