The Veil : Contemplating the Christian Tradition


And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them

Exodus 25:8

Tradition has long held that the veil of the temple, referred to in all three synoptic gospels as being torn1 at the moment of Christ's death upon the cross, was that which separated the Holy of Holies, the most sacred and interior part of the temple at Jerusalem, from the Holy or main body of the temple where the liturgical observances took place. Another view, equally as venerable2 holds that the veil referred to was that which stood some 25 metres tall and which hung in front of the main temple doors. More recent scholarship promotes a more literalist interpretation, their reasoning drawn from the following verse: "Now the centurion and they that were with him watching Jesus, having seen the earthquake, and the things that were done, were sore afraid, saying: Indeed this was the Son of God," (Matthew 27:54), and whereas the temple was presumed visible from Golgotha, only its exterior would have been in sight, thus only the outer veil could have been seen. To assume however that the synoptic accounts are of a purely literalist viewpoint closes the door to any symbolic or spiritual significance other than that which is overt and explicit (and yet which is, nevertheless, entirely adequate for the needs of man), but also limits scripture to a purely dogmatic and moralistic expression, if not reducing it entirely to an historical and anecdotal one. Patristic Tradition however, holds that scripture can be read in four ways: the literal and the moral, but also the analogical and the anagogical. Suffice to say it is the latter viewpoint that will be considered here3.

Before proceeding however, it is necessary to understand what these two veils (for withall that has been said we shall deal with both of them, and for reasons that will become apparent as we proceed), signify, and to do that we need to understand at least something of the temple itself. In this we shall draw heavily on an essay by Leo Schaya4, for its wealth of reference not only of scriptural but also oral tradition, and we accept his authority in these matters, but before that, let us pause a moment outside the temple gates, and consider the first of the two veils, the outer veil or masakwhich, as Josephus tells us, was a:

"Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe . . . Portrayed on this tapestry was a panorama of the entire heavens . . ."

Josephus' description of the outer veil bears much in common with the inner, paroketh,as described in Exodus5, so much so that we may assume the two were near enough identical, except in size, which is of course incidental and of no meaning in this context. In fact in the biblical description of the tabernacle (Exodus 25 on) there were no solid walls, it was a portable structure and Moses was directed to make 'hangings' on all four sides. The outer veil can then be seen as the last vestige of these hangings, but as all were made to the same design, the veil and the hangings, or the two veils of the temple, perform the same essential function, each conveyed the same message, the same 'mystic meaning'. Furthermore the outer veil can thus be seen not only as a repetition but intrinsically as a projection or a prolongation of the inner (the first veil), the veil which all others have as principal. Each veil reveals 'a panorama of the entire heavens', and each conceals a mystery, the sacred reality behind it. This relationship of the two veils, one to the other, is the aspect we shall explore in this essay.

The temple traces its origin back to Exodus, "And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them" (25:8). In this context the meaning of sanctuary then is twofold; generally in that it can be used to describe the tabernacle (and later the temple) in its entirety, and specifically it refers to its most interior part, the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy, before which hung the inner veil, the paroketh. This veil, like the tabernacle itself, was made according to Divine instruction, "According to all the likeness of the tabernacle which I will shew thee" (25:9), and thus is an earthly or physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. Within the sanctuary proper (or inner sanctum) stood the Ark of the Covenant in which was to reside the testimony, the covenant of God with His people and over which He sits, concealed in the mystery of His own Uncreated and Immaterial Essence (the metaphysical Absolute) and in the Immensity of His (metaphysical) Infinitude. The veil which hung before it 'typified the universe' which tells us that the veil marked the separation between Creator and His creation, between Essence and Substance. What lay beyond this veil lay beyond the created order, it was a 'sanctuary' miqdashin which God could reside in order to be known, and from where "I will appear to thee, and I will commune with thee," (Exodus 25:22)6. Thus the Lord spoke to Moses, and this applies not only to the tabernacle, but also to the temple, which Solomon erected 'for God's name' shem,for God is present in His name, for it is through His name that we can address Him.



The temple at Jerusalem served the same fundamental purpose as the tabernacle, its prototype from the age of Exodus, a tent erected to house the Ark of the Covenant during Israel's wanderings in the desert. The tabernacle was set up after the model of God's celestial 'vehicle' (merkabah)in which He would lead His people to the 'centre of the world' — "I will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem" (Zech 8:3). As such it functioned as God's dwelling place (mishkan)or the holy place of His 'indwelling' (shekhinah)with His people. When this vehicle came to rest, it served as His throne, but the true earthly image of His throne would necessarily be a fixed habitation, and thus a temple, not a tabernacle. For this reason only the temple can be called 'God's House' (Beth)or His 'Lower Throne', not the tabernacle. In themselves, as a seat of the Almighty, both tabernacle and temple represent the universal centre, but here below it is the temple alone that is acccorded this meaning because it 'solidifies' the idea of a principial centre as such. According to the Talmud (Yoma 54b) In it is found the 'foundation stone' (eben shetiyah)around which the earth was created and upon which the whole world rests. This has its correspondence in many traditions, such as the Omphalos of Hellenic mythology, and when Harmonia wove the veil representing the whole universe, she started with the Omphalos stone at the centre and from there worked outward7.In the Kabbala (Zohar: Terumah 157a) the Holy of Holies is the centre of the temple, the temple is the centre of Jerusalem, Jerusalem of The Holy Land and the Holy Land of the world. As foundation of the world the temple stands in direct line of the vertical axis of creation and thus represents the locus of the influence of the Divine, which determines its exterior and functional aspect as spiritual centre for the people of Isreal.

The temple then signified the notion of centre, and in its internal structure realised the vertical or hierarchical axis by a series of three courts, which have their ontological foundation in Genesis8. This is reflected in the Divine, the cosmic and the corporeal; or in spirit, soul and body. In the centre and thus representing the highest point was the Holy of Holies, God in His Isness; the "the deep" of Genesis9; the "I Am That I Am" of Abraham10; the 'Ground' or 'Gottheit' of Meister Eckart11; this is God in His Inscrutability. Outside or 'below' that was the Holy, wherein stood the symbols of the Jewish Tradition and here was enacted the ceremonies and rituals of the liturgical life. Finally 'below' the Holy was the Outer Court, and it was from here that man commences his journey back to God. Here was the altar and the basin and oral tradition informs us that sacrifice and purification were (and still are) necessary dimensions of spiritual realisation. In the language of symbology the element of sacrifice is fire because it consumes the gross and material and thus releases that which is subtle and of the essence. In the case of washing the symbology once again is obvious, so much so that ritual washing is a powerful element in almost every religious tradition on the planet. The metaphysical symbolism here is that washing signifies a return to a primordial and natural state of purity or innocence12.

To the Christian, it goes without saying that this ternary structure of the temple prefigures the Trinity. This is not to imply that the Doctrine of the Trinity is an extension of the temple tradition, in fact the reverse is the case, the form of the temple is itself founded in revelation, "According to all the likeness of the tabernacle which I will shew thee," (Exodus 25:9) and follows a Divine pattern, not a human one.

This transposition of the horizontal to the vertical, is in itself entirely 'reasonable' and as such needs no explanation. The association of 'centre' both with 'inner' and with 'higher' is obvious, although this expresses only three dimensions. With regard to the fourth, time, the centre is also often synonymous with the notion of 'back' or a 'return' to the source, which entirely undermines the whole modernist concept of 'progress' which itself regards time in an artificial and linear fashion, rather than as something natural and thereby as the evidence of nature informs us, cyclic. Thus the journey to the centre is also a journey to the interior, and at the same time an ascent13.

In closing then, it can be seen that in any and every tradition the temple 'fixes' the relationship between creature and creator in dimensional space14. It also 'fixes' this relationship in time, by the procession of its liturgical calendar, and also in eternity, or more accurately in the eternal, in the transcendant, by the remembrance and thus continuance of the given covenant upon which tradition is founded, a contract which springs from the eternal and is the sapiential life and being of the temple itself. This last marks the vertical aspect in its most explicit form and seen in this light the two veils stand one above the other, in a hierarchical relationship, in that the lower, to repeat, is a projection and continuation of the higher in its own domain. The two veils thus separate three worlds; the mundane, the sacred and the Divine, which is reflected in man in corpus, animus, spiritus body, soul and spirit.



1 - Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38 and Luke 23:45. back

2 - Origen, for example, believes the rending of the veil symbolises the destruction of the temple, to be rebuilt in Christ as He prophesied. He interprets the rending of the inner veil to be the signal for the final revelation, and the end of the world. This is of course a valid interpretation, as symbol works on many levels and in many dimensions, and was the one favoured by St Thomas Aquinas, among others. back

3 - The four are given in ascending order, and each in fact is determined by the one 'above' it. back

4 - Leo Schaya The Meaning of the Temple,in The Sword of GnosisEdited by Jacob Needleman (Penguin 1974 & Arkana 1986). back

5 - Exodus 26:31, 36:35, 2 Chronicles 3:14 describes the inner veil as using the same or similar colours as Josephus' description of the outer veil. back

6 - The exoteric understanding is of a sanctuary as a sacred place, both taking their root from the Greek sacare 'to set aside' and thus denotes a place set aside, by man, for the worship of God and for no other purpose (Thou shalt not have strange gods before me" 20:30.) The esoteric dimension of 'sanctuary' is that within it one is outside of ordinary time and space. back

7 - According to Greek myth Zeus let fly two eagles from opposite ends of the earth, and they flew towards each other and met over the town of Delphi, and this point at which they met was thus determined as the centre of the earth. The point was marked by the Omphalos stone in the temple of Apollo. When Harmonia wove the veil representing the whole universe, she started with the Omphalos stone at the centre and from there worked outward. The Omphalos was not only sacred to Apollo at Delphi but also marked the tomb of the slain and resurrected Dionysus. The Omphalos is also held to be the tomb of Python, the dragon that Apollo slew, and in the stone is often portrayed with a serpent coiled around it. For the Pythagoreans, the Omphalso symbolised the Monad, the seed of the universe. In Egypt their omphalos was the Ben-ben at Heliopolis, the theological centre of their culture, and prototype for the pyramids and the obelisk. Dedicated to the sun, the soul of the sun-god Ra, in the form of the Phoenix, would often alight upon it. There is an Omphalos in Ireland, at Tara, the seat of the High Kings of the Gaels, and the Stone of Scone sat beneath the seat of the kings of Scotland. Of course, there is the Dome of the Rock in Islam. The notion, both of centre, and of foundation, finds its expression in all traditional cultures. back

8 - Genesis 1:6-8, in the waters above and the waters beneath the firmament, the work of the Second Day. This symbology is discussed in depth in the Veil in the essay The Second Day. back

9 - Genesis 1:2, ibid The First Day. back

10 - Exodus 3:14, Ego Eimi Ho On— "I am the one who is" (or, "who am"). According to some modern exegetes the translation ought to be "I am who I am," in the sense of a refusal to give the name. A traditionalist view is "Being as Being". back

11 - On which grounds he was accused of heresy. back

12 - On entering a Catholic Church one is not required to wash, this cleansing having taken place in the Sacrament of Baptism. Rather one makes the Sign of the Cross with holy water, which is an act of inner purification, and signifies the essential interiority of the Christian Faith. back

13 - The origin of this is in the cycle itself, or more specifically its manifestation in dimensional space is as the spiral, in which history repeats itself but no two moments can ever be the same, and this casts light (and doubt) on the theory of reincarnation. back

14 - This applies to any fixed structure — temple, cathedral, church, chapel, even to the wayside calvary, as well as those spaces in the house set aside for religious observation common to the east and to Islam, even down to the 'spirit corner' or the tokonoma, the sacred (in the sense of set aside for a spiritual purpose) alcove in Japanese traditional architecture. Tragically this facet is absent from the Christian tradition. The cross upon the wall serves the same essential function, but of late it has become a 'decorative necessity' rather than a 'spiritual actuality'. back