Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Scripture

Mark 15:37-38 

15:37-38 – Mark tells us that Jesus died “with a loud cry.” Luke’s account seems to indicate that this is the point at which Jesus shouted, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” The Lord of all creation does not meet the specter of death with a whimper, but with a shout—a shout of intentional self-sacrifice. Death is not stealing his life from him; no, he is choosing to lay it down. Mark notes that at this point, the Temple of the curtain is torn in two. This detail, naturally, would not have been evident to the immediate observers of the crucifixion (since the curtain was enclosed in the holiest part of the Temple, some distance away), but must have been added later, perhaps from the accounts of Temple priests who may have joined the early Christian community in Jerusalem. But this little detail is extremely significant. The curtain was one of the most important symbols in the entire Jewish faith. It was the wall of separation that kept all people (including all priests, almost all of the time) from actually entering into the presence of God, which was thought to dwell in the Shekinah glory in the Holy of Holies, enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant. Only one priest, once a year, was permitted to enter that room beyond the curtain, and even then, it was traditional to tie a rope around the priests’ ankle so that those outside could pull his body back out if he happened to be struck dead—such was the unimaginable power of the weight of the glory of God. So one of the meanings of the tearing of the curtain is that it symbolizes the removal of the barrier between God and humanity. Now all people have direct access to God, simply because of the death of Jesus Christ for us. Now there is no wall separating us from God, and we can enter into the Holy of Holies. But there’s more—a second layer of symbolism to consider. In many of the extra-biblical traditions of Old Testament theology (targums, Talmud, etc.), it’s clear that the interior of the Temple was actually thought to represent the meeting-point of heaven and earth. The outer courts represented the created world (and perhaps we could go further and say “instantiated,” because they represented it in a real, not merely symbolic, sense). The inner room, the Holy of Holies, represented heaven, the realm of God himself. The curtain was the juncture of these two halves of all reality. Interestingly, the clothes of the high priest were thought to be intentionally woven from the very same material as the curtain. Thus, the high priest himself, in undertaking his functions, became the junction of heaven and earth. In early Christian tradition, then, the curtain was taken to represent the incarnation of God the Son in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. One of the most ancient extra-biblical stories of the New Testament is the Protoevangelium of James, which gives the tradition that one of the jobs undertaken by the Virgin Mary as a girl was to weave the fabric of the curtain in the Temple—a symbolic foreshadowing of her role in weaving (bearing in her womb) the incarnated Son of God. So the tearing of the curtain also represents, in a very real sense, the rending of the flesh of the incarnated savior, and the spilling over of heaven into earth as the new phase of the Kingdom of God takes shape in Christ’s death and resurrection.