In introducing the topic of veils within Catholic liturgical tradition, I touched briefly last week on the veil of the Temple in Jerusalem. As I mentioned, veils performed—and still do perform—a variety of functions within our liturgical worship. They are used to conceal something precious, something of value, something consecrated to a specific and holy purpose.
In Exodus (Ch. 25), God instructed Moses to craft the Ark of the Covenant and how to house it. God tells Moses that a purple veil should cover the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Later the construction of the Temple is detailed in significant portions of the Books of 1 Kings (Ch. 5-8) and 2 Chronicles (Ch. 1-7), in which it is reasonable to presume that Solomon acted at the direction of God Himself, not unlike His instructions to Moses. The Scriptures take great pains to detail the manner in which the Temple is both constructed and appointed (decorated) as a way of impressing upon us the importance of the environment in which we worship God—a sacred space, set apart, and filled with items of a sacred nature whose use is only for the worship of God. (In some ways we have waned in our adherence to this principle in recent years as attitudes toward worship have become regrettably horizontal in nature.)
In the very heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctum, in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tables of the 10 Commandments (as well as Aaron’s staff and a pot of manna, according to some Hebrew texts). This most sacred of objects was housed in a room (called the Tabernacle) filled with incense, into which the High Priest of the Temple was only permitted to enter once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice on the “mercy seat” which was the top of the Ark of the Covenant itself.
There was no door to the Holy of Holies, but a veil supported by four columns. This veil was more than just a barrier—it symbolized the delineation between this world and the next, between our human existence and the Divine Presence, between Heaven and Earth.
The color of the veil is also significant. God commands Moses that the veil be purple in color. While no specific reason is given, we know from history that purple was the color of royalty—the result of purple dye being quite precious and very expensive to attain. What may have been lost on the ancients but should not be lost on us is that purple is also a color of penance, of atonement. Within the Holy of Holies, the great sacrifice of atonement for the sins of Israel was made by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. It was a sorrowful act in which the Hebrews sought to make amends for their transgressions, and the Holy of Holies clad in purple highlights the penitential nature of the act.
From a Christian perspective the most significant aspect of the Temple veil is tied to the Crucifixion. At the moment of Christ’s death, the Gospels relate that the sky blackened, there was an earthquake, and the veil of the Temple was torn in half, which would have exposed the Holy of Holies. The importance of this imagery cannot be overstated, and it is heralded by the Fathers of the Church as the moment at which “heaven is opened,” (Pseudo-Jerome). Theophylactus writes: “God by the rending of the veil implied that the grace of the Holy Spirit goes away and is rent from the temple, so that the Holy of Holies might be seen by all. This also is a figure of the living temple, that is, the body of Christ, in whose Passion His garment is torn, that is, His flesh.” St. Ambrose suggests that the old veil is rent that the Church might “hang up the new walls of faith…[and] that we might behold with the eyes of the mind the inward mysteries of religion now revealed to us.”
In light of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, one thing is quite clear: the veil of the Temple being torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death shows the revelation (the unveiling) of God’s salvation to man. Yet it is quite curious that, despite the veil having been taken away, the Church has, since the earliest of days, continued to make use of them. Over the next few weeks we will explore the various ways in which the Church continues to employ the use of veils and their significance in our worship of God.