The tearing of the Temple veil in two is one of my favorite moments in the Gospels… Hopefully this essay shows you why.
The 15th Chapter of the Gospel of Mark contains the record of Christ’s trial by Pilate, beatings and humiliation, crucifixion, and ultimate death. These events are well-known—and it could be said that our familiarity is what causes them to be powerless and ineffective in the repeated telling. Although we understand on an intellectual level that these events changed the world, we have the storybook version so memorized that we often fail to see past the snapshots that have been immortalized in art and Easter greeting cards. For the studious disciple, it takes dedicated attention to look past the superficial and dig for the intimate meaning in each detail.
As is his custom, John-Mark moves through the story rapidly while leaving a trail of oddly specific details. Each of these details paints a glorious picture of the spiritual forces moving behind the events as John-Mark juxtaposes this tragic climax against Jesus’ previous teachings. One detail in particular has always stood out to me: The temple curtain being “torn in twain” from top to bottom.
The author of the textbook interprets this event as a symbol of the Temple system falling. While this might be true on an over-simplified level, I do not think that was God’s primary intent by this display of power. In truth, Jesus never came to topple the Temple system entirely; He came to fulfill the law, not hastily do away with sacrificial ritual. What Jesus came to do away with was the exclusivity and spirit of religion, and that is exactly what tearing the curtain accomplished.
The curtain separated the outer courts from the Holy of Holies—the place where (formerly) the Arc of the Covenant and a physical manifestation of God’s Spirit dwelt. During the duration of the Old Testament, God came down in a literal, physical sense to the Holy of Holies. It was His earthly throne room.
However, only the high priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and only during specific times of the year and only with the preface of detailed sacrifices. The commonfolk and women were never allowed to enter, and even the priests could very easily abuse the ritual and be struck dead.
To put it mildly, God Himself was exclusive—hidden behind a veil and shrouded with ritual. But with Jesus’ culminating act on the cross, the Kingdom of God was born again on the earth, and the exclusivity was shattered. God rent the veil, exposing the wonders of His Kingdom and inviting everyone to enter.
Had God wanted to demonstrate that the Temple was a disbanded system, or do away with the sacrifices entirely, He would have instead caused the Temple itself to fall in the quaking. But wanting to make an honest sacrifice to God was never something Jesus condemned. Rather, it was the relentless control and religious stumbling blocks that He came to overturn.
In this way, I do not see the quaking, darkness, and rending of the veil as a tragic event. It may have been horrifying in the moment, yes, but in retrospect, we can see that it was a glorious display of God’s power. The Creator-God, who can shake the pillars of the earth and make the sun go dark, ripped His own shroud of exclusivity away and revealed Himself to the world. In one terrific display of glory, God opened the door to the Holy of Holies and invited all who were willing to enter into His presence.