In first-century Jerusalem, a thick linen veil (described by Josephus as bearing a depiction of the heavens) separated the two main chambers within Herod’s Temple: 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 that day had 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 River 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 blessed oblivion, not heaven or purgatory 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 released from the bonds of the 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 glorious 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.