“The problem is, it’s all Good Friday and no Easter Sunday.”
This was a critique I recently heard someone offer on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I readily agreed with it. But I was struck by how applicable the observation was to Easter sermons in general. Pastors go into incredible detail describing the 39 lashes Jesus took on his back, his painful walk to Golgotha, the crown of thorns on his head, the nails in his hands and feet, the hours of breathless agony spent hanging on a roughly hewn cross–and, finally, the spear in his side. The Resurrection ends up almost as a footnote to all the blood and gore.
Nevermind that the Resurrection is what gives power and meaning to Christ’s crucifixion. Without it, Jesus is just another martyr and those 39 stripes heal no one.
However, what I love most about the Crucifixion story has nothing to do with the sufferings of Jesus and gets even less of a mention than the Resurrection.
For me, it’s all about the veil.
Three of the four gospels mention the veil that hung in the Jewish temple. This veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple’s interior and was the place where the High Priest entered once a year to meet with God. These words from Rabbi Telushkin (quoting from The Dybbuk) capture the breathtaking beauty and significance represented by the Holy of Holies:
“In Jerusalem the holiest place was the Temple, and in the Temple the holiest spot was the Holy of Holies. There are seventy peoples in the world. The holiest among these is the people of Israel. The holiest of the people of Israel is the tribe of Levi. In the tribe of Levi the holiest are the priests. Among the priests, the holiest was the High Priest.
There are 354 days in the [lunar] year. Among these, the holidays are holy. Higher than these is the holiness of the Sabbath. Among Sabbaths, the holiest is the Day of Atonement….
There are seventy languages in the world. The holiest is Hebrew. Holier than all else in this language is the holy Torah, and in the Torah the holiest part is…the name of God. And once during the year, these four supreme sanctities of the world were joined with one another. That was on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and there utter the name of God” (Jewish Literacy, pg. 73-74).
That’s right: only one person, a High Priest from the tribe of Levi, could enter the Most Holy Place–the place that held the presence of God–once a year. That’s it. For millennia. One person could stand in the presence of God…once a year. One person could hear the audible voice of God…once a year. One person made atonement for the sins of mankind…once a year. If anyone else dared set foot in the Holy of Holies, at that time or any other, he (or she) would immediately be struck dead.
And this veil that hid the Holy Place was no swath of sheer material. It was a woven fabric 60 feet high, 30 feet wide and a full 4 inches thick. No human hand could have torn it. Yet, when Jesus died, this veil ripped its entire length, from top to bottom, exposing the Holy of Holies. It was symbolic of what Christ’s sacrifice had accomplished: the fulfillment of God’s promise to walk among His people (Leviticus 26:12; 2 Corinthians 6:16).
In one moment, God severed the barrier between Himself and His people. He opened His arms to embrace all of mankind–even in the face of the egregious sin it had just poured out on His son. No more was the presence of God limited to one man to experience once a year. Now anyone–male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile–could be a priest unto God (Revelation 1:6; 1 Peter 2:9).
For me, this is the significance of the Cross. Not simply that Jesus bled and died. Not simply that my sins are forgiven. But that God chose me, and you, and everyone who accepts Him as His dwelling place. That I am fully loved and accepted. That I can hear His voice and feel His presence daily.
This is Easter Sunday. This is life beyond the veil.