MATTHEW TELLS US THAT AT THE moment Jesus died, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom" (Matt. 27:51). The immediate cause was apparently the earthquake that accompanied Jesus' death. Yet it is impossible for the thoughtful Christian not to nestle this brief and cryptic observation into the bigger picture---the account of what the curtain had already come to mean in the history of Israel and how it plays out in the later books of the New Testament, such as Hebrews and Revelation, where the first generation of Christian writers explain to their readers just what the cross achieved. Along this axis, the tearing of the curtain was a symbol-laden act of great significance. Four reflections:
(1) Neither the curtain nor the tearing of the curtain make any sense unless we see that, this side of the Fall, we have no right to come into the presence of a holy God. After their calamitous rebellion, Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden (Gen. 3). When the rescued Israelites construct their golden calf in the desert, God not only sends judgment, but threatens not to manifest himself among them, lest they be destroyed (Ex. 32-33). In narrative and oracle alike, the biblical writers drive home this truth: sin separates us from our transcendentally holy Maker. We do not have right of access to the most holy.
(2) That reality was symbolized in the construction of the tabernacle and later the temple. One third of the structure, called the Most Holy Place, had the dimensions of a cube. It was separated from the rest of the building by a heavy curtain. Here God manifested himself in glory. Only the high priest could enter---and only once a year, bearing the blood of the prescribed sacrifices, offered up for his own sins and for the sins of the people. All others were excluded under pain of death.
(3) The tearing of the curtain at the moment of Jesus' death therefore symbolizes that Jesus' death has gained access for sinners into the very presence of God. He is our great high priest; he is our atoning sacrifice. Nor does he have to slip into the Most Holy Place every year, once a year. He dies once for all and satisfies the holy demand of God, so that in principle the curtain can come down.
(4) Small wonder, then, that the "new Jerusalem," one of the images for the final abode of God's people (Rev. 21-22), is shaped like a perfect cube. Already Christians have access to the throne of God by the merit of Jesus Christ; in the consummation, however, we will stand unafraid and overwhelmed by joy and adoration in the unshielded splendor of his holiness.