Gen-XYL: The Rending of the Veil

I’d be willing to wager that most Millennials and Gen-Xers have seen the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (well the guys anyway). Perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie is when the Nazis, who had discovered and taken possession of the Ark of the Covenant, decided to open it.

But first, some background….

Earlier in the film, archaeologist Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) and a colleague are providing some exposition on Ark-lore, and at one point we are shown an artist’s rendering of an account from the Old Testament depicting the wrath of God toward his enemies who presumed to use the Ark of the Covenant for their own selfish purposes — there was thunder, lightning, and angry fire. “Good God!” Indy exclaimed. His colleague’s response was perfect: “That’s what the Hebrews thought.”

Why am I talking about this?

A similar display of vengeance and retribution should have been experienced by those who witnessed one of the most remarkable (albeit oft-ignored) episodes in the New Testament gospels: the rending of the veil.

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split (Matt. 27:50-51).

Putting aside the thorny issue (ahem) of when exactly (relative to Jesus’ death) this event transpired, we mustn’t miss the significance of what purportedly happened, as well as what did not happen.

The “veil” in the Jewish Temple was not just some piece of pretty décor, like a shower curtain or nice set of drapes. It was a foot-and-a-half-thick woven barrier that stretched from floor to ceiling, whose purpose was to cordon off the divine Presence at the heart of the Temple from the sinful humanity of God’s worshipers (and it was in this “Holy of Holies” in Israel’s original Temple that the Ark of the Covenant was once kept).

In fact, so serious to the Jews was the danger of being confronted with Yahweh in all his blinding holiness that only Israel’s High Priest was permitted to enter into the Presence within the veil, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement, in order to offer a sacrifice of atonement for himself and for the sins of the people (Heb. 9:7).

Now switching back to Indiana Jones and the Nazis for a moment, those who have seen the film will remember what happened when they presumed to open the Ark and thereby expose themselves to the God of Israel: their skin literally melted off their skulls (but not in Indy’s case because he had the decency to avert his gaze).

So what happened when the Temple veil was torn as Jesus died on the cross? What took place when the unmixed and unmitigated Presence of the thrice-holy God of Israel was unleashed upon unsuspecting sinners?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

And as we begin to explore the answer to why this is, we will start to get to the heart of what Exile is all about.