On Ash Wednesday 2004, I was one of many Christians who stood in line for the opening of Mel Gibson’s cinematic passion play, The Passion of the Christ. If I remember correctly, it was a warm, sunny day, and the line was quite long. My friends and I attracted a few stares because we were still wearing our blessed ashes. At the time, I was deeply moved by the film and defended it stoutly against its detractors.
In the decade that has passed since the movie was released, my feelings toward it have cooled. In my opinion, it is not a movie that has “aged well.” Oh, Gibson certainly included some powerful images, my favorite being that of Christ and Simon of Cyrene linking arms to carry the cross. Other images were not quite as successful. Even on my first viewing of the film, I thought the solitary raindrop that fell at the death of Christ, symbolizing God the Father’s grief at his Son’s death, was melodramatic. But I gave Gibson credit for imagining that there should be a tangible element that acknowledged the relationship between the Father and the Son at the moment of the Son’s death on the cross.
Years later, I took some classes in Judaism at a local synagogue. As I have explained elsewhere, I took these classes because:
Part of our work in apologetics at Catholic Answers requires learning about other religions. Such study is vital so that we can answer questions that are submitted by people who need information so they can talk to non-Catholic friends and family. Each of us tends to pick an area in which we have a personal interest and that will be helpful for our work. . . . In my case, one of my interests is modern Judaism.
One of the classes I took was on the Jewish rituals surrounding death. In particular I was fascinated by the ritual known as keriyah (Hebrew, “tearing”). When a Jew learns of the death of a close relative, he is expected to tear what he is wearing—in modern times, usually a shirt, because that is the garment that covers the heart:
When a close relative (parent, sibling, spouse, or child) first hears of the death of a relative, it is traditional to express the initial grief by tearing one’s clothing. The tear is made over the heart if the deceased is a parent, or over the right side of the chest for other relatives. This tearing of the clothing is referred to as keriyah. . . . The mourner recites the blessing describing G–d as “the true Judge,” an acceptance of G–d’s taking of the life of a relative.
Discussion of keriyah continued in class, with the teacher demonstrating how it was done and explaining why actually tearing the garment that is being worn is more meaningful than cutting a ribbon (as some Jews do as a modern symbolic substitute, rather than ruining their clothes). As the teacher brought up his hands to his collar to show how he might rip his shirt in mourning, an image flashed in my mind. It was one of the most controversial of the supernatural phenomena the evangelists report in the Gospels as occurring at the moment of Christ’s death: The ripping of the Temple veil.
The ripping of the veil is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here is how each of the evangelists recorded the moment:
- And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matt. 27:50–51).
- And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:37–38).
- It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:44–46).
St. Matthew, a Jew writing for a Jewish Christian audience, and St. Mark, possibly a Jew but also traditionally believed to have recorded St. Peter’s memories, both place the tearing of the Temple veil immediately after Jesus’ death. Only St. Luke—probably a Gentile disciple of St. Paul, writing for a Gentile Christian audience—places the tearing of the veil before Jesus’ death, perhaps not realizing the significance of the timing. St. John does not mention the incident, perhaps because it was already well-known, or perhaps because it seemed to him to be of lesser importance by the time he wrote his Gospel (well after A.D. 70, which was about the time the formal split between Christians and Jews began).
Of course, Christians have long attached other meanings to the rending of the Temple veil—some of which are downright anti-Semitic. In researching this blog post, I found theories that the torn veil symbolized everything from the end of the Old Covenant, to the repudiation of the Jewish people, to the end of any need for human intercession with God, to the rending of Christ himself!
Lessons for Holy Week
What can we take away from meditation on the ripping of the Temple veil this Holy Week? Here are some suggestions:
Small details matter. As I wrote in a blog post on the small details of Scripture a couple of years ago, the small details of Scripture matter. While it is possible to become hyper-focused on small details and miss the big picture of Scripture, I think the opposite problem is also a concern. We can become too familiar with the story and neglect to think about why Scripture includes the details that it does. Train yourself to notice the little things. As I said in that blog post:
How do you train yourself to pick up on these details? Perhaps the easiest way is to follow along while the lector is reading at Mass. Focus not just on the main storyline but on the small points the sacred author includes. Ask yourself questions. Why did Jesus say what he said in just that way? Why is this precise detail mentioned?
Original context should be rediscovered. I think one of the reasons that anti-Semitic interpretations of the rending of the Temple veil could take hold is because we are two thousand years removed from the original context in which the historical event of the crucifixion took place. A detail of the passion and death of Jesus Christ that the evangelists included, and which would have been an enormous consolation to their Jewish Christian audiences, has been interpreted by some Christians to indicate a divine repudiation of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. Rediscovering original context can do much to repair this type of injustice. As the Second Vatican Council said in Dei Verbum, its document on divine revelation:
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking, and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another (DV 12).
Interreligious dialogue is important. Some Catholics pooh-pooh the notion of a dialogue with non-Christians that is not specifically directed at attempts to proselytize them. They ask what could possibly be the point of talking about our religious similarities and differences if the end result is not baptism for the non-Christians. But, as demonstrated in this case, sometimes learning about a non-Christian religion—especially Judaism, from which Christianity originated—can help us to better understand our own religion. In Nostra Aetate, the fathers of Vatican II observed:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (NA 2).
Christian anti-Semitism happens. For centuries, Jews have long feared Holy Week. It is a time of year when Christians were known to engage in the harassment and persecution of Jewish communities. For examples, just scroll through this timeline of anti-Semitism and note how many incidents occurred in conjunction with the Jewish Passover and with Holy Week (which occur close together nearly every year). Very often, Christian sentiment is an excuse for anti-Semitism, not a cause, but that is hardly a comfort for victims of anti-Semitic crimes perpetrated by those who claim to commit their evil deeds in the name of Christ.
And, unfortunately, the New Testament has been used as a weapon against Jews. Not only has the ripping of the Temple veil been given anti-Semitic interpretations, so have Jesus’ interactions with his own people, especially those recorded in the Gospel of John. If we are to make strides in overcoming anti-Semitism, we need to become more aware of how often our own assumptions about the New Testament can undermine the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. As the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Liturgy recommended in its document God’s Mercy Endures Forever:
Because of the tragic history of the “Christ killer” charge as providing a rallying cry for anti-Semites over the centuries, a strong and careful homiletic stance is necessary to combat its lingering effects today. Homilists and catechists should seek to provide a proper context for the proclamation of the passion narratives (21).
If you would like to read more about this topic, I highly recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament.
The “grief” of the Father
From a strict theological perspective, God is incapable of emotion. One reason for that is because emotions are changeable. If God could change, then either he would not yet have something or he will lose something—and that is incompatible with the state of being perfect. If he is not perfect, he cannot be divine. His divinity means that he has all perfections. In order for God to weep over the death of a friend, God the Son first had to become man (cf. John 11:32–35).
God the Father could not weep over his Son’s death. Mel Gibson’s symbolic “teardrop” from the sky was merely a way to symbolize the reality that the Father loves his Son (love primarily being an action of the will, and not merely a changeable emotion).
But I think the record of Scripture itself that the Temple veil was torn from top to bottom at the moment of the Son’s death is a far more powerful symbol of the Father’s “grief.” The veil closed off the Holy of Holies, where the God of Israel dwelt. When that veil was ripped away, in a symbolic sense it “exposed” God to the world. That symbolic “exposure,” perhaps, was a way of showing all mankind that God chose to be “made vulnerable” by the death of his only-begotten Son.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14–17).