Fr. Scott A. Haynes
On Ascension Thursday, forty days after he rose from the grave, Jesus Christ our High Priest entered the sanctuary of heaven as the angels sounded their trumpet blasts and sang their alleluias. As He entered the heavenly Paradise, the Holy of Holies, He passed beyond the veil.
That phrase “beyond the veil” is a rather unusual expression, isn’t it? It refers to something in the Old Testament. You see, in the Temple of Jerusalem, there was an enormous veil that was 60 feet in height. And the veil was 30 feet wide and four inches thick. It was highly embroidered in purple, blue, scarlet, and finely twisted linen. Then the golden cherubim were woven into it as described in the book of Exodus. Behind the veil lay enshrined the gorgeous symbols of Jewish history and Jewish faith. Behind the veil was the Holy of Holies.
Only the Jewish high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and then only but once a year – on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Even as the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he made meticulous preparations: he performed ritual washings, put on special vestments, brought burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and brought blood from animal sacrifice as atonement for sins.
The veil in the temple was a constant reminder that sin renders humanity unfit for the holy presence of God. The Temple sacrifices which had to be repeated demonstrate how sin could not truly be atoned for or erased by mere animal sacrifices.
That veil of the Temple was rent asunder at the moment our blessed Lord died on the cross on Good Friday. The Veil was rent at the very hour the Passover lambs were being slain. And Scripture tells us an amazing detail--the veil was rent from top to bottom. Only God could do that because the top of the veil was beyond man's reach. It must have been the finger of God that tore the veil from top to bottom.
As the veil was torn, Jesus, the Lamb of God, cried out, "It is finished" (Jn. 19:30). The sacrifice of the Passover lambs, which began in Egypt and was faithfully carried out over centuries, was now surpassed by the sacrifice of the Passover lamb par excellence—Jesus, the Lamb of God upon the altar of the Cross.
On Good Friday, that barrier between heaven and earth, between God and man, was now destroyed. And thanks to Christ’s all perfect sacrifice on the cross, his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven, the holy of holies could be opened. As Jesus cried out "It is finished!" on the cross, He was indeed proclaiming that God’s redemptive plan was now complete. The imperfect sacrifices of the Jewish Temple were at an end because the blood of Christ the High Priest made the final and the perfect atonement for our sins.
Just as the Temple sacrifices were not enough to make us righteous, so too we must realize that none of us is worthy on his own merits to enter the Holy of Holies. That is right. We can never be so good that we can impress the Lord by our holiness. If we think that we ourselves are ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ then we have the stench of arrogant pride like the Pharisees.
We must come before God’s presence with humility. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we are all sinners. And it is in the blood of Christ that we are washed clean. And so, St. Paul proclaims to those who have been baptized:
"Ye are washed…ye are sanctified…ye are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God."
The Jewish Holy of Holies, which existed for a time, pointed toward the heavenly Holy of Holies, which is eternal. Inside the holy of holies were the most sacred objects of the Jewish faith. I will mention a few. The manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness was kept in the Holy of Holies, but this points to Christ, the living Bread come down from heaven. The tablets of the law with the 10 commandments were in the Holy of Holies, but this points to the Lord because he gave the Law.
So too the veil of the temple points towards the very flesh of Christ. Let me explain. When the centurion pierced Jesus’ side, he pierced Jesus’ flesh; he used his spear to pierce Christ’s flesh and to plunge it right into the Sacred Heart of our Lord. This revealed the Holy of Holies, the heart of the Living God.
This idea of the Temple veil pointing us to the flesh of Christ is something that may be familiar to you already. Think about it. Every Christmas we sing the popular Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It is in that one line that you’ve sung many times, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” The hymn writer saw the connection between Veil of the Temple and Christ’s flesh. In other words, when Christ’s flesh was pierced on the Cross this, in some sense, opened the veil of the Holy of Holies and revealed for us the heart of God.
In Christ our High Priest we have our mediator with the Father, our Savior who made perfect atonement for us before the Father. Christ broke down the partition between God and man. So, Christ is our peace.
Contemplating Christ’s Ascension, I realize how unfit I am to enter heaven ‘as is.’ Like the streets of Chicago each of us are under road construction. We have lots of potholes. As the late great Fulton Sheen once wrote:
"I look down to my human nature laden with sin, and I despair. I look up to Christ’s nature; it is now risen and ascended, and I’m full of joy. I look to my own nature, and I see my helplessness. I look up to Christ’s nature, I see my hope. I look down to my nature; I see my sin. I look up to His and I see His Holiness, and it is that Holiness of the human nature of Christ that is ascended to heaven."
St. Paul exhorts us:
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the veil, that is, His Body…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith." (Hebrews 10:19-22)