Curtain torn

a homily for Good Friday

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38).

In their versions of our Lord’s passion, two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, both point out to us that the moment when Jesus dies on the cross the curtain in the temple in Jerusalem is torn in two, from top to bottom. It is an odd little detail to throw in…in an event that is full of odd, little details—details like Pontius Pilate’s refusal to change the wording on the sign hanging above Jesus on the cross and the detail about the kind of branch that was used to lift a sponge of sour wine to his face. I imagine there will be details about Jesus’ crucifixion that jump out at you tonight—things you may have heard before but suddenly sound important even if you don’t know why.

The part about the temple curtain being torn is important enough to Matthew and Mark for them to make sure we know about it. It’s the first thing that happens after Jesus gives out a loud cry and breathes his last. In the silence that comes right after he dies (as if there was silence!) there is a ripping, thousands of feet away—what must have been a dramatic severing, from top to bottom, of an ancient, heavy fabric. There were surely people there who saw this as it happened, since the Temple at the time of the Passover would have been a busy place. The public executions outside would have only been a distant commotion.

“Crucifixion” (Francisco du Zurburan, 1627)

The curtain in the temple of Jerusalem served the purpose of separating the area called the Holy of Holies from the area where the people would gather to pray. It functioned like a veil, rather heavy and opaque, so that light could not get through and people could not see what was on the other side. Since the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people, the holy area behind it, where it was believed God dwelled, was kept distinguished from and undefiled by everything else. It was God’s safe zone, and the temple curtain helped remind people of that. God was there, behind it, and we, with our broken world, were here, on this side.

The cross of Jesus takes that barrier down. God steps out behind that safe zone and enters our brokenness. But the curtain isn’t just pushed out of the way so that God can step into our midst, as if he is a performer coming out on stage to make some pre-show announcement. It is ripped, destroyed, from top to bottom so that it can never be hung there again. The word in Greek for what happens here is “schism”—a split or division that is not easily overcome. As it happens, the only other time this word is used is at Jesus’ baptism, as he comes out of the water and the when the heavens are ripped open and the voice of God is heard saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Now, as Jesus turns over his life to his Father, there is another schism, another demonstration that anything which separates God and heaven from humankind is being torn open.

The point is: In the life and death of Jesus, God’s beloved Son, God wants on this side of the curtain. God is coming to us. Nothing will hold Him back.  Not a veil. Not our brokenness. Not even death.

Several weeks ago our congregation hosted a prayer vigil put on by the McShin Foundation for all of those who’ve lost their lives to addiction and substance abuse disorders. We held small candles in our hands under an especially dramatic cloudy sky right as the sun was going down. We were sad. It felt like Good Friday. The woman who led the vigil stood right at the base of our cross out front and began with her own story of recovery. She talked about her struggles with heroin and other drugs and how it had impacted her life and had driven her to the point of despair. At one point she said her life had become a hell—but then she caught herself, afraid that word may have offended me or others. Suddenly aware that she might have crossed some boundary and done something inappropriate, she looked at me and apologized for using that language, apologized for mentioning something so foul and profane in the presence of worship. It was a brief awkward moment, but then she continued, unabashedly, to let loose with her hard story, and it was beautiful to hear. We were thankful for such honesty.

We can often get the impression that church and worship are only for happy things, that to gather here we should just be sunshine, and that having faith in general means showing only a good side. We feel we can’t weep, we can’t let people know our struggles, and that is a shame. That is, I think we set up a certain curtain not just in a church setting but also in our private lives—a veil behind which we sequester our pain, our sorrow and we kind of keep God at bay.

And yet, the cross of Jesus is precisely what gives us the hope that there is no boundary anymore. God wants to be on this side of the barrier. God will not be kept at bay to save us, and if there is any place we can tell our stories of redemption, if there is any place where we can talk honestly about our often hellish lives, if there is any place we can light a candle and expect God to encounter us, to rescue us, it is at the place where his light briefly goes out. God does not like anything hanging between him and us, and if there is any time we can trust God will show us the depth of his love at the cross of Jesus the Christ.

The Creator of all has decided no more holding back. He offers his own life, takes on all our sinfulness and darkness, and breathes his last. And as he does, God steps into the darkest place we could ever go. God and the humans he loves become one again and God will lift them up to his eternal life. The heavens have been opened, the curtain has been torn…God is here.

Just a detail thrown in there, I guess.

But maybe not so odd after all.

And, on second thought, definitely not little.

cross vigil



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.




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