“the veil in the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom”+
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells us there is a time to rend and a time to sew. In other words there is a time to tear things apart and a time to stitch them back together. The Cross was both.
At that event, just as Christ dies, we see a physical tearing of the earth itself (in a 'quake) and of a deeply significant curtain in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The tearing of the earth is associated with the opening of graves and the resurrections of unspecified holy men and women, a kind of precursor to the great Resurrection to come. And so the material elements are, as it were, forced to give up their hold on God's people. We see here a hint that the normal laws of nature as we know them are now beginning to be rewritten so that death and decay will no longer have final dominion. But as rocks are ripped apart, souls are reunited with bodies. The spiritual re-integration, the healing of the Cosmos, has thus begun. Rending and sewing are inextricably linked here.
The torn curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, so that the Holiest place, representing God's abode, could neither be seen nor approached. Only the High Priest, and he only once a year, could enter in. But now this barrier is parted, symbolising not just an end but a beginning. For symbolised here is the mending of the relationship between God and man. As the book of Hebrews teaches us, the torn veil, representing Christ's torn flesh, also represents an opening of access for all of us to God's intimate presence. The holiest place can now be entered “boldly” (Hebrews 10: 19ff). Again, a rending apart leads to a joining together. The Cross is both destructive and healing.
This barrier to entering God's presence had been enforced by the Law of Moses. It reminded the people of God of not only of His Holiness, but of their unholiness and unworthiness, as did much of the Law. For the Law, as St Paul teaches, primarily functions to restrain sinfulness already present and to reinforce to sinners the consequences of their actions (Gal. 3:19-25, 1 Tim. 1:9-10, Heb. 10:3).
So, how does Christ's Cross tear down the wall of separation and reconcile us to God? How does it slice open the veil but link us to God? This, truly, is a question that cannot be fully and adequately answered in one sermon, or even in a lifetime of Sermons. At the Cross we approach a mystery hidden deep in the heart of God, and one which engages his fathomless love and wisdom.
But this we can say: Through Christ's voluntary acceptance of the Cross we have God fulfilling his own Law, which prescribed, by God's holy decree and promise, human death for human sin. The penalty of evil is not merely forgiven by God, though he certainly does freely forgive us. Evil is not simply overlooked. What is free to us was not free for God. He pays the price we could not. He fulfills completely, in Christ, both the positive commands of the law and, paradoxically, the demands of the law for negative consequences when the Law is transgressed. And he does both of these things by “obedience unto death”, as the Epistle states, “even death on the Cross”. As God the Son his obedience to God the Father is perfect and has infinite value and power. (What is the power of this obedience? The power to connect us to itself and create us anew within it.) As the Son of Man he can truly stand in for us and absorb in human nature the results of human sin. And he can, through that divine power just spoken of, incorporate our humanity into his. His sacrificial offering of holy obedience thus becomes both the “end of the Law” as an external threat to us and the beginning of our own obedience through grace (Romans 10:4, 6:22-23).
Thus he not only acts “instead” of us at the Cross. He represents and carries us within him at the Cross. In one action he has dealt with the penalty of sin and the sinfulness within us that led to it. In one action he has torn down the barriers between us and God, and ripped sin away from us and even joined it to himself in a sense, in order to overcome its power, yet he has also mended the ancient tear within and among ourselves, and the rupture between Man and his Maker.
Allow me to finish with three quotations to emphasise these truths. One from Scripture, one from the Fathers, and one from a more recent theologian, arguably the most profound theologian of Atonement of modern times.
St Paul, 2 Cor. 5:14-21
“if [Christ] died for all, then were all dead … he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again … Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. … God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them … For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
St Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Logos, 6-7, 9 and Orations Against The Arians 2:69
“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word [Genesis 2:17] and that humanity, having transgressed, should not die. it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back on His word regarding death [Genesis 2:17] in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not make Himself a liar. What, then, was God to do?. The Logos perceived that our perishing condition could not be abolished except through death. Yet He Himself, as the Logos, being immortal and the Father's Son, could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that this body, through belonging to the Logos Who is above all, might become a sufficient exchange in dying for all. … By surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, He immediately abolished death for His human brothers by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Logos of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled by death all that was required.” “[God] sends His own Son, and He becomes Son of Man, by taking created flesh; that, since all were under sentence of death, He, …. might Himself for all offer to death His own body; and that henceforth, as if all had died through Him, the word of that sentence might be accomplished (for all died in Christ), and all through Him might thereupon become free from sin and from the curse which came upon it, and might truly abide for ever, risen from the dead and clothed in immortality and incorruption.”
P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ, pp.147-148
“Christ entered voluntarily into the pain and horror which is sin’s penalty from God. Christ, by the deep intimacy of His sympathy with men, entered deeply into the blight and judgment which was entailed by man’s sin, and which must be entailed by man’s sin if God is a holy and therefore a judging God. It is impossible for us to say that God was angry with Christ; but still Christ entered the wrath of God, ... He entered the penumbra of judgment, and from it He confessed in free action, He praised and justified by act, before the world, and on the scale of all the world, the holiness of God. You can therefore say that although Christ was not punished by God, He bore God’s penalty upon sin. … we may say that Christ did, at the depth of that great act of self–identification with us when He became man, He did enter the sphere of sin’s penalty and the horror of sin’s curse, in order that, from the very midst and depth of it, His confession and praise of God’s holiness might rise like a spring of fresh water at the bottom of the bitter sea, and sweeten all.” +