There are so many haunting lines in the passion narratives. Who of us, for instance, is not stirred in the soul when the passion story is read in church and we come to the part where Jesus takes his last breath and there is that minute of silence, where we all drop to our knees? No Good Friday homily is ever as effective as that single line (“he gave up his spirit”) and the moving silence that ensues.
Another such line that has always haunted me is the one that follows immediately after. Jesus dies and we are told that, at the very second of his death, “the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” My imagination, even when I was very little, has always been able to picture that. I have this picture in my mind of it growing dark in the middle of the day and then at the second of Jesus’ death, almost as if by lightening, the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom while everyone looks on stunned, convinced now, too late, that the person they’ve just mocked and crucified is the Christ. It’s a great picture. But, my imagination aside, what is really meant by that phrase that the veil of the temple ripped open at the moment of Jesus’ death?
Biblical scholars tell us that the veil of the temple was precisely a curtain. It hid the holy of holies. The ordinary worshipper in the temple could not see what was behind it. It shielded a person from the great mystery. Thus, when the gospel writers say that at the precise moment of Jesus’ death the temple veil was ripped apart from top to bottom, the point they are making is not, as my imagination would want it, that God shredded what was most precious to the those who crucified Jesus to show them how wrong they were. No. The point is rather this: The temple-veil was understood to hide the mystery of God from the people. In the crucifixion that mystery is laid open for everyone to see. Jesus’ death, understood properly, shows the inner workings of God. It rips away our false understandings of God and shows us what God really looks like. And what do we see behind the veil? Among other things, we see a God who spills his own blood to reach through to us rather than want us to spill ours to reach through to Him/Her. What is meant by this?
There is a centuries-old question that asks why Jesus had to die in so horrible a manner. Why all this blood? What kind of cosmic and divine game is being played out here? Is Christ’s blood, the blood of the lamb, somehow paying someone off for the sin of Adam and Eve and for our own sins? Why does blood need to be spilled?
This is complex question and every answer that can be given is only a very partial one. We are dealing with the greatest of all mysteries here. However even mysteries can be partially understood. One of the reasons why Jesus dies in this way – one of the reasons for all the blood – is clear and its implications are profound. It has precisely to do with blood.
From the beginning of time right up until the crucifixion of Jesus, all cultures sacrificed blood to their gods. Why blood? Because blood is so identified with the life-principle. Blood carries life, is life, and its loss is death. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising to us that everywhere in ancient cultures the idea was present that what we owe to God is blood, that God needs blood. In their view of things, blood was the only language that God really understood. So they felt that they should be offering blood to God. And they did. For a long time, this included human blood. Humans were killed on altars everywhere. Eventually however many cultures eliminated explicit human sacrifice and used animals instead. By the time of Jesus, the temple had become a giant butchery with priests killing animals nearly non-stop. Some scholars suggest that when Jesus upset the money changers’ tables in the temple about 90% of commerce in Jerusalem was in one way or the other connected with animal sacrifice. No small wonder Jesus’ action was perceived as a threat!
So why all that blood at Jesus’ death? Because, as Richard Rohr so aptly put it, for all these centuries we have been spilling blood to try to get to God and, in the crucifixion, things get reversed: God spills his own blood to try to get to us. It’s this reversal that rips open the old veil of fear, the false belief that God wants blood. God does not want us to spill blood to get to Him/Her. We are not meant to live in fear of God. All the blood in the crucifixion of Jesus is meant to tell us that.