Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 2nd April 2021
Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
In the Cathedral of Jaén in Andalucia, Spain, in times past they used to cover the whole of the great reredos, the altar piece, which filled the east wall, with a great piece of material. And during the Good Friday Liturgy it was rent in twain. How they managed it, I do not know, but it must have been a chilling sound as it reverberated round the vaults of the cathedral.
The act recreated the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke at the death of Jesus. The veil covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies at the heart of the temple. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies just once year on the Day of Atonement when, dressed in plain white linen garments, he would offer incense and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed goat to atone for the sins of the people.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes how Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies. The rending of the veil at the death of Jesus removes the need for this act of annual atonement because Jesus has offered himself in sacrifice once and for all upon the cross. As High Priest he offers the sacrifice, as the spotless lamb of God, he is the sacrifice.
And the writer says that because of this ultimate act of atonement we can enter with confidence into the inner presence of God in the blood of Jesus. Jesus has gone through the heavens, so we can ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence and receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.’
Whereas the high priests of old could be weak and fallible men, though Jesus was tempted he remained without sin; by taking our human nature, he could sympathise with us in our weakness. He knew fear and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but through his suffering he learned obedience. St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, described how suffering can produce perseverance which strengthens character and gives rise to hope. Hebrews reminds us that following Jesus means being obedient to God: as we recognise our debilities, our pride is punctured and deflated and we realise our dependence on the grace of God. Whoever would be Christ’s disciple must take up their cross and follow him. Through emulating our master in our suffering we too learn obedience.
The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, a catastrophe for the Jewish people. The Day of Atonement remains the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, however atonement is now to be carried out in the temple of the heart of every believer. It is a day of fasting and prayer that concludes at nightfall with the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, and the exclamation, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’
Although Jesus atoned for our sins, sin has not been eradicated. The prevalence of sin, evident in the damage it causes, continues to be unearthed: the tragedy of the murder of Sarah Everard revealed how women continue to be subjected to sexual harassment; we heard this week of a rape culture in secondary schools; the church has been shaken to its foundations by cases of abuse which it subsequently tried to conceal. All such revelations are unpleasant and disturbing and shatter our complacency that these sorts of things surely do not happen in a fine country like ours. In this inter-connected age we are aware of these happenings, and yet unless they occur to us, or to people connected to us, they may wash over us. We live cocooned lives and can easily tend to think that other people’s lives are just the same as ours.
Yet Jesus knows human suffering from the inside. When we look at the crucifix, we look at one who knows us, and what it is to suffer. The rending of the temple removes the barrier between God and man. When God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai the people were petrified and pleaded with him to speak with God on their behalf. ‘Do not have God speak to us, or we will die,’ they said. The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
Through the death of Jesus and the rending of the temple veil, we are brought close to God. Through Jesus, our High Priest, we can confidently yet humbly approach the throne of grace, we need not be afraid.
No more veil! God bids me enter
By the new and living way.
Not in trembling hope I venture;
Boldly I His call obey.
There with Him, my God I meet--
God upon the mercy seat!
In the robes of spotless whiteness,
With the blood of priceless worth,
He has gone into that brightness,
Christ rejected from the earth–
Christ accepted there on high,
And in Him do I draw nigh.
Frances Emma Bevan