What can we learn from the veil in the temple?
Once more Margaret Barker draws on her extensive knowledge of the Old Testament to bring the story of creation right up to date. Using the very language of the original story, she shows that “creation” was not a before-and-after sequence, but an ongoing presence of God in the middle of his world. This presence is symbolised, she says, by the veil in the temple: inside the veil is the holy and undivided presence of God, while outside is the divided – and often compromised – created world.
Margaret also shares her knowledge of apocryphal legends about Adam and Eve. Coming from the “Life of Adam and Eve” (sometimes known as the “Apocalypse of Moses”), this Jewish work dates from the early Christian centuries. While we might feel some natural reservation in paying attention to such books, we should take encouragement from the fact that Pope Benedict XVI based his Holy Saturday Homily in 2010 on exactly this text!
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, Genesis 1:1
The holy of holies in the temple was screened from human eyes by a great curtain, and the area beyond the curtain represented the presence of the Lord, invisible at the heart of creation. In the Genesis story of creation, this is Day One, the beginning of all things, “Let there be light!” Genesis 1:3-4. This heavenly light is sometimes called the uncreated light.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes. (Written by Robert Sterling/Walter Smith)
‘In the beginning God created’, means that all creation comes from ‘the beginning’, the holy of holies. It is called Day One because it is the state of Unity. All the ancient versions of Genesis in Hebrew and in Greek say ‘Day One’, not ‘the first day’ as we mentioned in the first of these articles because the presence of God in creation is not part of a sequence – first, second, third, and so on – with the Creator somehow in the past ‘before’ all creation.
The holy of holies is the ever-present state beyond time and matter, undivided. In contrast, time, matter and the divisions they make possible, belong to the creation outside the veil. Within the veil, however, there is no division in the presence of the Creator: no time, no change.
Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Written by Henry Francis Lyte/Will Henry Monk)
Holy of holies, sometimes translated ‘most holy’ did not mean ‘very holy’. It meant a special quality of holiness that was infectious. Those who entered the holy of holies ‘caught’ the holiness. Those who were granted the vision of the Lord in uncreated light were transformed by that experience and became holy ones. They were themselves a part of the Unity of divine light. In Christian tradition, these could be angels or saints, and so both are depicted with halos to show they were light bearers.
Jesus emphasised to his disciples after the Last Supper that they should be one, to show that they were part of the divine Unity and thus prove that Jesus had come from the uncreated light – John 17:2-23.
In Solomon’s temple there was a huge throne in the holy of holies, representing the throne of the Lord, the state where he ruled. The holy of holies was ‘the Kingdom’. When Jesus said ’the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’, Luke 17.21, he was reminding people that the Lord was at the heart of creation, not in the past, or the future, or remote in heaven. When Jesus taught about the kingdom, he was applying to this world in practical ways the ideal of heavenly Unity, and how to bring that into being through the words and works of healing.
The prophets glimpsed this in their visions, as did the disciples at the Transfiguration. The sages warned that when people lost sight of it, everything disintegrated. People on earth were able to learn something about God from the angels [meaning ‘messengers’] who were themselves part of the Glory and Unity of God. The angels were not just the bodiless spiritual beings who from time to time appeared on earth; they included the ‘born again’ Christians who were already living the life of the holy of holies.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth … Colossians 3:1-2.
The song of the angels symbolised the harmony of all Creation centred on God, and when people on earth praised the Creator, they joined with the angels in their music and became part of the great pattern of the Creation. The harmony and shalom of Creation were maintained by the obedience of the angels, and humans had to be obedient to God if they were to preserve the Creation. An old legend (the Life of Adam and Eve) said that when they had left Eden, Adam and Eve no longer heard the song of the angels.
The mis-named ‘enlightenment’ thinkers in Europe believed that God was irrelevant to human progress. They imagined a world without the holy of holies, that is, with no presence of God in the midst. They turned their backs on the uncreated light, and soon found themselves looking at the shadow of a human figure falling across the rest of creation. They aspired to be the masters and owners of creation, using it as they wished. But with no vision of God at the centre, the warning of the wise teachers in the Bible has come true: everything is disintegrating, things are falling apart. The world is imploding from the recklessness with which we have treated it and its inhabitants.
At Bethlehem, the shepherds received again what Adam and Eve had lost: they saw the glory and heard the song of the angels, which had not changed. How might we recover this glory and vision?
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among people of goodwill, Luke 2:14.
Margaret’s final sentence poses the question on which we might reflect: “How might we recover this glory and vision?” She perhaps gives a hint when she talks about the “Enlightenment” loss of God, of “something beyond”. She tells us that the veil signified exactly that missing element – it said to our ancestors, “There is something beyond.” Previous generations of Catholics would have been very used to seeing veils. Nuns would have worn them as a matter of course. Priests would wear a humeral veil when giving Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. Even the sacred vessels on the altar would have been veiled and unveiled in a simple liturgical action that spoke volumes.
Is there, in fact, a seemingly contradictory truth that to recover the vision of God’s glory, we might first have to perceive the veil? Whether this might be a tangible piece of holy cloth, or a metaphor for the created world veiling the glory of its Creator, I will leave to your own thoughts.
Many of us will still find the veiling of statues and crosses during Passiontide a very powerful symbol, which leads me to suggest my action point. If you have a small statue, or icon, or other holy picture in your house, take a clean white handkerchief and use it to veil the image. Calling to mind the fact that at this moment you represent the whole of creation, repeat the following prayer and let its words hang in your silence.
Within the veil,
I long to come
Into the holy place, to look upon Your face
There is such beauty there,
Glory beyond compare
I worship You, my Lord,
Within the veil.
©1978 Genesis Music, adapted by Fr M Hall 2021