So I’ve been thinking about that veil.
I grew up hearing the King James Version: Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom—Matthew 27:50-51. That veil—thick as it was shrouding the holiest place—was rent in two.
A brightness hovered over the ark of the covenant, the searing fire, Isaiah’s fire, and shone off of the skin of the many winged cherubim when he declared – I am a sinner! That holy and dangerous light remained curtained for centuries. God chose to keep his celestial, cellular, immeasurable power behind a mere cloth.
A strange word to my modern ears, this “rent”. It sounds to me like wrestle and render. No one uses it anymore. We say tear, slash, rip. All single-syllable actions.
To “rent in twain” seems a violent action, a wrestling take-down, a heated conflict, a sword-fight. A removal. I know the veil was made thick and strong to keep the power contained, unseen. It makes sense that it would take some force to rent it.
But when Easter rolls around each year, no one speaks of the veil.
We speak of the Passion of Christ, we speak of the betrayal and beating and of the nails, of Mary’s morning walk and a gardener who spoke her name and opened her eyes, of new life and a fresh start…but of the veil? Rarely, if ever.
And yet, the veil’s rending is everything.
On one of my walking routes, I pass a cheap bouquet of flowers shoved into the earth near the entrance to a county road maintenance site. I’m surprised every time I see it—until I remember. A man committed suicide just fifty yards from this spot beyond the county fence. Someone counted him as special and on this corner, on this side of the barbed wired fence planted the bouquet as a marker. The weatherworn bleached plastic memorial marks the spot holy, directs my glance to the tragic final act on the other side of the fence.
My steps slow and I stop to wonder about the man so despairing, without a shred of hope. I think about this every time I pass the flowers. They remain season after season, ever-blooming and faded. And then my mind recalls that late September afternoon where just across the street from the place I now stand, (behind me not more than the length of a football field) a strange sound prompted me to turn my head and see flying objects soar over an open meadow through the periphery of my vision. Through the open car windows I had heard a sickening thunk as something slammed into the large, yellow warning sign painted with arrows, intending to communicate to drivers…slow down.
The projectiles were a motorcycle and two human bodies.
I heard the trio of thuds as they met the ground. Pulling the car to the shoulder I turned my face in time to see the tall grass shimmer, convulse. I watched other witnesses leap the fence and race to the dying. I remained frozen, breathing something like prayer. I had four kids in the car. I stayed with them because I knew if I, too, leapt over fences the kids would follow. What would they have seen? I couldn’t take that risk. They would have seen the mortally wounded, the invisible soul escape it’s cage leaving a woman’s lifeless form in the dry brown grass of autumn under a sky purpling dusk.
It’s a quiet road just beyond the city limits, a pretty confluence of paths leading north and south, east and west. But, it’s also a place of death chosen or death unbidden, on one side of the street and the other.
The reminders of the renting of the veil press upon my ears and clutch my throat. I swallow for a bit of spittle to quench my thirst.
Sparrows chipped in the pines overhead, the October sky shone brilliant as a bluebird’s breast, a pickup turned the corner and rumbled east and a grasshopper landed on a tall, seeded spire of grass. I watched it swaying there on its mast. And in the midst of all the soporific murmurs of an ordinary afternoon, I think because I stopped to listen, I heard the heartbeats cease and the veil rent. I am perforated by the empty end of lives I never knew.
The yielding of ghosts.
A tear falls and I’m silly. I’m a lady wearing yoga pants beside the road, crying over the death of people she never knew. But it’s my death, too. Because we share it all—this suffering, this toddling, loving, worrying, planning life is terminal.
Just two years prior, on a different road, blood spilled from my organs and pooled in vacancies left behind where lung and spleen should have been. My insides pressed and shoved by the impact like belongings in a duffle bag. We sat in the van, shattered glass in our hair, my children crying uncomforted because we could not move to hold them. I glanced at my husband wedged too tightly between the seat and steering wheel, his face a pinched paper mask of pain. My breath shuddered weak and ragged, orphaned. My soul crept nearer the puddled folds of the veil, nearer to the glory of God behind the curtain.
I shake my head at the memory, and turn away to breathe in the air, sun-warmed yet crisp. I walk away from the tacky flowers set among weeds. I listen to my steps as I tread on fallen pine needles and crunchy, summer-dried grasses. Autumn is a death as true as any other. Its ravishing colors, its friendly afternoon warmth are a crimson trumpeting pomp before the cold of winter entombs the landscape.
But thoughts of the veil, heavy as it is, rustles in the breeze and invites me to step further still. I think that humankind, myself included, would rather rail against its fortified woven weight than tread across in silent awe—on tenterhooks or tiptoes—to consider the holiness on the other side.
Here on the outside, where death is eminent and we are all equaled by this unified sentence, we puff up, strut proud or angry or squeal about our busyness or our poverty.
We can be loud or ignorant, chanting or lobbying or hating or making love to whomever we choose.
We can be pious or pretty or gluttonous or ascetic; we can be intelligent or silly or inane.
We can be giving or hoarding or grudging or popular. We can build fences or tribes or camps or thick walls or daisy chains.
On this side of the veil we can be everything we know or have known. We can do it well or not all. We can wonder why and wail in piteous tones or we can say I told you so. We can be utterly and fully human and flesh it out in every which way.
And we do.
To take tentative steps across the threshold of the holy place, we risk dispensing our beloved humanity. It falls away like God’s own torn garments, leaving us bare and naked and hushed. It is holy and terrifying and more real than any other moment we drew breath and exhaled. It is living beyond. It is moving through alien air quieted by the voice that divided firmaments and spoke through flaming leaves to Moses. It is taking courage to fill lungs with something so clean it cuts.
We’d rather rail against the barrier of the veil or stride through, our good deeds and polished ideals clanging and clattering against the marble floors. We like the idea of moving into the holy of holies fully equipped. Or, we stand shuddering beside the doorway, fingering the torn fringes of the rent veil and whispering our lies: couldn’t be for the likes of me. Kneeling in false humility. Feet dig deep into the soil a singular experience.
But to enter on the name of the One whose very suffering wrested the fibers until they gave way, this name that rent the veil in two and exposed the holiness of God to the humanity of people and the humanity of people to the holiness of God?
For a moment can we just openly stare at the place that is enveloped, filled and breathing with the holiness, the set apart-ness, of God? God has bared himself; his hidden glory, perfect power, immutability and mercy exposed, in full view.
Do we just walk by or shut eyes tight and deny?
Is this why the Hebrew people only breathed his name?
Under a gauzy, sparkling sheet of stars God spoke to Abram, gave him a new name, breathed life into the walking death that populated this planet and uttered a promise so divine, it could not be of human origin. His presence burned in the pot and moved through the divided sacrificial animals lying on the desert sand. He moved through life and death and made a promise. He revealed his love for what he’d made. His promise breathed hope and life in the midst of death.
And then, Jesus – the most set-apart man who ever lived, fully human but never sinning, mortal yet immortal, powerful but subjected to weakness – rent the veil and yielded his ghost. He moved through and became the promise and the symbol of a new covenant for all of us milling about, dying, outside of his glory. And every word he had spoken, every parable and healing touch all pointed to the full, round word, the invitation to be set apart: come.
Jesus’ wretched body hung naked and nailed, blood thickening around the wound, flesh tight and water running from the gash in his flesh. The very sight broke the heart of God, who mourned loudly, his robes rent in twain and the heaving and sobbing of eternal love shook the earth and darkness moved across. A grace this darkness, because it hid the nakedness of God. But in this Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
Life and Light transform and illumine the dark landscape of grief and his dawning calls across the threshold of the Holy Place, “Come and you will see.” (John 1:39).
Come: Peer through the rent divide and see God, bare, unhidden.
And I thought, as I stepped homeward, that perhaps its easier to objectify Christ, to make iconic that suffering savior with the thin, beaten body hanging on a cross than it is to look in the cave of God’s mourning, that place of utter grief—God grieving—beyond the veil. It is less uncomfortable to speak of the plotting Pharisees or Peter’s rash denial or Judas’ kiss than it might be to look into the throne room of grace to listen to the suffering of God, the ear-wrenching scream of the veil rending twain and the silent upheaval of the ghost of his son.
But I looked, because we are drawn inexplicably to the grotesque, gaze frozen on the spot of horror, of mourning… I really looked. I stared full into a black possibility, and both options were death. I have said it this way, “As I leant, unmoving in the seat of my crushed car, surrounded by the people I love most in the world, my husband and kids, barely breathing, nearer to death than I knew and I could have slipped just as easily into more life in heaven or more life here on earth, but death would be the gateway whichever way my soul passed: a letting go. I only had the will to breathe and even then, let that go. A man slid a tube down my trachea and the last words I heard were this: I’m going to do the breathing for you.
Okay, I thought, Breathe for me. I haven’t the strength anymore. I cannot take one, more, single breath in my own power. Lifeless lungs received the air he pumped into me. I was done breathing on my own, done choosing on my own.”
I really let go.
And I thank God with all the life I have in my body that the veil rent in twain, that it hung gaping, open, waiting for me.
One day, someday, I’ll fully walk through to the other side and this dying thing will make sense, not my close call, but the dying of my Savior. He was the one set apart to walk into death, rend the veil, break the heart of God and offer up all he had: his own perfect blood.
The seeds fall in autumn, lifelessness grips the earth and we lie in repose, in wait. And the spring comes verdant and new, a squalling infant red and tender and full of possibility. I walk the same path and the same gaudy, fake flowers rustle in a breeze wetted with spring rain and the tears come again, and again. Let me die a million times to know this real life, I pray.
And the veil flutters in the breeze, light, free, open, rent.