Behind The Veil

For those people who have been to weddings, one of the more fascinating aspects of the contemporary Western wedding, even if few people stop to think of its meaning with regards to their own conduct before marriage, is the matter of the bride’s veil.  Symbolically speaking, at least, the veil serves as a temporary barrier between the bride and groom, marking the way that the bride is supposed to be off limits for the groom, until after the wedding vows are made, at which point the veil is lifted up so that the groom can kiss the bride and symbolically become one with her.  Again, the symbolism of the event is something that can easily be appreciated by those of us who go to weddings even if we have yet to have our own yet.  Even so, the symbolism depends on a certain expectation, namely that the oneness that intimacy and sexuality provide is to be limited to the married state.  Clearly, this is not the way such things work for most people in our present evil age.  It would seem that we are attracted by the romance of weddings, and at least dimly and half-aware of the sort of magical symbolism involved in the wearing of white, the importance of rings, the making of vows, and the lifting of veils, even if few people go to the altar in a state of purity, are serious about remaining with their spouses through the ups and downs of life until death parts them, or have the self-restraint to wait for oneness until after having made vows before God about their loyalty to their spouses.

Yet marriage veils are not the only sort of veil that are of importance to believers, not least on this Day of Atonement in which I write [1].  On Leviticus 16:1-5, we read the first part of an elaborate set of rituals that the high priest was to officiate on the Day of Atonement:  “Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the Lord, and died; and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.  “Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering.  He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on.  And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.” 

Let us briefly note in looking at this particular passage that the Day of Atonement is set apart as a day of particular intimacy between the high priest, on behalf of Israel, and God.  Let us note that this intimacy is marked by this day being the only time that the high priest was permitted behind the veil that separated the Most Holy Place from the remainder of the temple where the priests offered sacrifices or incense before God as part of the ordinary operation of that religious system.  Special clothes were to be worn, and special offerings were required to allow the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies to make a personal appeal to God at the mercy seat on behalf of the people.  It is remarkable, given the corruption of the priesthood in the second temple period, that there is no account in any source that any priests were struck down by God in this act.  Of course, more recently it has become joked that high priests were so frightened of God’s judgment that they would tie a robe around themselves so that if things did not go well behind the veil that other priests could drag them out, but these stories have no basis in historical accounts of the Second Temple period.  It appears, at least from the historical record we have, that God was merciful even to the corrupt priests of the time of Christ when they came to him on behalf of their people.

This is not the only time when the veil of the temple is mentioned.  Most memorably, as is recorded in Matthew 27:50-53:  “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.  Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”  Much can be and has been made about this incident, how the fact that the veil being torn has opened access to the throne of God to believers, who can now intercede directly with Jesus Christ rather than being kept at arm’s length through (possibly corrupt) priestly intermediaries, and the fact that the veil was torn from the top down signifies that it was God’s action from the top down and not our own actions from the bottom up that allow us to have this greater intimacy with God.

But the Bible reveals that God has always wanted more intimacy with mankind than mankind has been comfortable with.  In the Garden of Eden, God wished to speak to mankind after Adam and Eve sinned by partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they hid from Him.  Cain refused either to heed God’s warning about mastering his anger over having his offering rejected or to repent and seek forgiveness when God came graciously and mercifully to him to give him the chance to confess of his murder.  While Abraham was a friend of God and walked with Him and Jacob dreamed of the stairway to heaven and the resulting communication and interaction between heaven and earth, ancient Israel was not so fond of God’s presence throughout its history.  At Mount Sinai Israel desired Moses to serve as a go-between with God because they (rightly) feared God’s anger about their lack of belief.  Later on, the people of Israel desired to be ruled by a king so that they could be like the other nations rather than have the special status having God be their king.  Later prophets like Hosea and Ezekiel write movingly and even graphically about the betrayal of Israel and Judah of their covenental relationship of marriage with God and God’s yearning and longing for oneness with them that they simply did not reciprocate.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a man like myself very familiar with yearning and longing for oneness with those who are terrified at the prospect of being united with me should be struck by this situation.  In many ways, we are no better than the ancient Israelites when it comes to answering the call to oneness and intimacy with God.  For sinful man, intimacy with the holy and righteous and perfect God is a terrifying prospect.  We may appreciate God dispensing favors on us, or blessing our nation, or being either helpless as a baby in the manger or a penal substitutionary offering on our behalf nailed to the cross, but the prospect of God’s leadership rebuking us for our sins and faults and calling us to repentance and the prospect of the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit shaping and refining us and transforming us from the inside out so that we are remade in God’s image and likeness can be a terrifying prospect.  While we might all agree that Michaelangelo’s David is a great deal more striking and beautiful than a block of marble, we can agree that the block of marble probably does not dream of being chiseled and shaped quite painfully and dramatically according to the vision of the sculptor.  And when it comes to being made into God’s image, we are the marble and the hand with the chisel is God’s own.

What is it that makes intimacy so terrifying?  To be sure, there are parts of oneness that we greatly enjoy.  Few people in our present evil age are able to resist the lure to oneness that comes from sexual union in any form that strikes our fancy.  We long for the caress and cuddles of someone who loves us and who we hope will be loyal to us and for the chemicals to rush through our bloodstream as a result of infatuation and coitus, and so that aspect of sexuality is usually not something that bothers us.  But far too many of us shrink away painfully from showing the less praiseworthy parts of our natures to those who might judge us, or who might betray us, or who might tire of us and get bored of us from seeing the same patterns of behavior over and over again, fighting over the same things, struggling with the same problems without improvement, while the novelty and thrill of being with us fades away into complacency and disinterest, if not active contempt.  Being fickle and treacherous sorts of beings ourselves, we know that intimacy with God will make us vulnerable to a being who lacks our weaknesses and who has the power to hurt us a lot.  And yet the Day of Atonement calls us to this intimacy, while reminding us that one can only find oneness behind the veil, and that one cannot simply pick and choose the sorts of oneness that we prefer without doing great violence to ourselves and committing grave wrongs against others.  It is little wonder that the price of this intimacy with God is blood, whether the blood of bulls and goats in the sacerdotal order or the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Himself for believers today.  What is a wonder is that God wishes this intimacy with us, despite knowing the sort of being we are, because He knows that He can make us better if we are willing.  But are we willing?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Love & Marriage, Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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