Dear Catholic Exchange:
I am just getting acquainted with your website. I love it! A friend of mine, who was a former Catholic. . . and I were talking the other day. Among many topics, she mentioned in the course of our conversation that since the veil in the temple was torn in two after Jesus’ death, we don’t need an intercessor anymore. I shared that I was of the understanding that the Old Covenant (of Moses) was replaced by the New Covenant (of Jesus). Can you relate to me the Catholic understanding of the meaning of the veil in the holy of holies being torn in two at the time of Jesus’ death?
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Peace in Christ! Matthew 27:51 records that the veil, or curtain, of the Temple was torn from top to bottom at the moment Jesus died. One can say part of the meaning of this event is that the need for intercessors no longer exists. This is true, if you understand an intercessor to be the Levitical priesthood in the line of Aaron—intercessors that needed to continually offer sacrifices, both for their own sins and the sins of the people. On the other hand, one can also say that the need for an intercessor between God and man has not been done away with, but rather has been transfigured by the death of Christ, so that He alone is our intercessor (cf. Heb. 7:23-28; 10:11-18). The deeper meaning of the veil being torn, however, is contained in your question—that the Old Covenant was being transfigured to become the New Covenant in Christ. The deeper point of this fact is that God, in this act, opened the Covenant to the whole world, breaking down the wall that separated the rest of the world from a benefit given only to the Jewish people. Those of us who were far off were made near (cf. Eph. 2:11-22).
When Jesus came to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she asked Him about the belief of the Jews, the belief that Jerusalem was where the faithful should worship. She said her fathers had worshipped on the mountain in Samaria. Who was right? Jesus affirmed that salvation “is from the Jews,” meaning that the Temple in Jerusalem was the point of worship on earth. He went on, however, to proclaim to her that the day was upon them when no single point on earth would be the center of worship, but the true worshippers would worship God in spirit and in truth.
As long as the Temple stood, it signified the continuation of the Old Covenant. Hebrews 9:8-9 indicates that the way to the sanctuary was not yet open “as long as the outer tent” still stood, being symbolic of “the present age.” The “present age” refers to the age that was passing away even as the New Covenant was established. A study of covenantal history shows that God never abruptly cuts off one thing He is doing and suddenly begins something new. The old and the new always overlap. Thus it was with the New Covenant—the “present age” formally ending with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70—that came the ending of the old sacrificial system. It is theologically reasonable to say that the rending of the veil was a prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Temple and that the Temple of God in heaven was opened (cf. David Chilton, Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation [Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987], 291).
More light is shed upon this great mystery when we understand that the veil was symbolic of Christ Himself. Christ is the only way to the Father. This is symbolized in the fact that the High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies through the veil. Now Christ is the High Priest, and the faithful partake of His one priesthood (cf: Catechism, no. 1546). The faithful enter the Holy of Holies by Him. Hebrews 10:19-20 says that the faithful enter into the sanctuary by the “blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” The veil being rent from top to bottom was obviously Christ Himself! No doubt the veil in the Temple in Jerusalem was literally rent. Why it was torn at the moment of Jesus’ death is explained in the letter to the Hebrews. These things were shadows of things to come, and they all ultimately point to Christ. He was the veil to the Holy of Holies, and through His death, the faithful now have access to the sanctuary. The Catholic Church teaches unequivocally that Christ has removed the barriers between God and man, and now we may approach Him with confidence and boldness (cf: Heb. 4:14-16). This gift is appropriated by Baptism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 10:22) and in our participation in the Eucharist, especially reception of Holy Communion, whereby the faithful become, one could say, a temporary Tabernacle.
To sum up: the Temple is a symbol of the Old Covenant, but it is also a symbol of Christ, who said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days, I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19-22). The veil in the Temple was symbolic of the flesh of Christ Himself, which according to Hebrews, was torn and opened up to us a new and living way. The death of Christ and the rending of the Temple veil were both prophecies of the coming destruction of the Temple, this destruction definitively ending the order of the Old Covenant. “Therefore, his being put to bodily death presaged the destruction of the Temple, which would manifest the dawning of a new age in the history of salvation,” which Jesus spoke of to the Samaritan woman at the well (Catechism, no. 586; footnotes omitted). The ultimate significance of the end of Old and the inauguration of the New is that God’s plan from the beginning—to redeem all that was lost (cf. Catechism, no. 1; Eph. 1:9-10)—is now fulfilled in Christ. The Old Covenant church pointed to this moment in salvation history; the New Covenant church (which subsists in the Catholic Church) draws from it and points back constantly to it.
I hope this answers your question. If you have further questions on this or would like more information about Catholics United for the Faith, please contact us at 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484). Please keep us in your prayers as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”
United in the Faith,
David E. Utsler
Catholics United for the Faith
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Steubenville, OH 43952