There’s a particularly poignant line in the account of Jesus’ death which says that, when he died, “the veil in the sanctuary was torn from top to bottom.” I remember, as a boy, hearing that read in church, picturing it literally, and thinking: “Now they’ll know what a terrible thing they’ve done!”
But that line doesn’t refer to some ominous, dark sign at the moment of the crucifixion, meant to stun the world and prove it made a gross mistake. It refers to something else, not dark and fateful at all. The sanctuary veil was the curtain that hung between the ordinary people and the holy of holies, the most sacred of all places, and prevented them from seeing what was behind. What the gospel-writers are saying is that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil that sits between us and the inner life of God was ripped open so that we can now see what God looks like inside.
The cross, then, is the ultimate icon, the real depiction of the Holy. It shows us God’s heart, the inner life of the Trinity. How is this so?
On the cross, there is not just one person, Jesus. Ultimately all three persons in the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – are on the cross.
On the surface, of course, we see Jesus, the Son. What’s he doing? He’s suffering and dying, but in a particular way. He hangs on the cross in anguish, dying, alone, humiliated, misunderstood, but he also hangs there in trust and fidelity, giving his life away without resentment, recrimination, and bitter questioning because he knows and trusts someone deeply enough to, literally, believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining, in love even when he isn’t experiencing it, and in God even when God is silent.
We see Jesus on the cross, but we see him there clinging to someone else with a trust that turns hatred into love, curses into blessing, bitterness into graciousness, recrimination into understanding, and God’s silence into faith. On the cross we see one person, but as being held and empowered by somebody else.
Less visible, but clearly there as the recipient of this trust, present as the one about whom this drama is ultimately about, is the Father. He is also on the cross, suffering with the son, holding the son in this darkness, showing himself worthy of trust, and trusting the son not to short-circuit the tension so that God’s response, the resurrection, can be what it should be, not an act of vengeance, nor a bullying definition of whose in charge, but an act of unfathomable redemption, understanding, forgiveness, and love, an act that, more than anything else, defines God. The Father is there too on the cross, suffering, waiting in patience, empowering another to trust.
Finally, the Holy Spirit is also on the cross, uniquely generated and released by what unfolds there. As the drama of the crucifixion, this deep interplay of giving and receiving in love and trust, is taking place, a forgiving warmth, a healing fire, and an unfathomable patience and understanding are being produced, revealed, and released. That energy, the ultimate oxygen, which the gospels depict as spilling out of Jesus’ pierced side as blood and water, is the Holy Spirit and that Spirit reveals precisely what is going on inside of God. What is happening there?
Inside of God, as we can see from the cross, there is no bitterness, vengeance, loss of patience, or lack of graciousness (not a single trace). When the veil inside the temple is torn, when the side of Jesus is pierced, what we see, what flows out, is only forgiveness, patience, gentleness, understanding, and warm invitation.
We have an analogy for this, however inadequate, inside human relationships. Whenever two people love each other so deeply that the power of that love enables them to trust enough so as not to grow embittered, recriminating, and questioning of God in times of pain and darkness, than that love becomes an energy, a warm spirit, an oxygen, that empowers everyone who comes into contact with it. You see this in a good marriage, where the love and trust that a man and a woman have for each other become something akin to a warm fireplace that warms everyone around them. From their side too flows “blood and water”, a spirit and a baptism. But that only happens when their love for each other is of the kind that enables them both to sweat blood in the garden rather than give in to bitterness, recrimination, and the temptation to make God prove himself. A good love empowers both parties to carry the burdens of others as well as the burden of doubt, without resentment.
The cross is an icon of this kind of love. It defines God as love and gives us a picture of what that kind of love looks like.