By Stephanie Clinton
A childhood memory from Sunday school randomly pops into my head every now and then—a lesson about the Jewish temple of the Old Testament, what it looked like, and how it was used. The teacher even had a blueprint-type diagram of the temple to show us the outer and inner chambers. She placed special emphasis on the innermost chamber of the temple, the room where the ark of the covenant was kept. The holy of holies.
This room was described as the place where God sat. This is where my little eight-year-old brain combined Sunday school lessons and the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. I imagined the ark from the movie to be what was kept in the holy of holies. I pictured God using it as a chair and thought about how uncomfortable that seemed. According to the teacher, the entrance to the room was covered with a thick curtain, which I imagined to be heavy red velvet with gold fringe. This curtain was very important. I didn’t know why, but it was.
The teacher impressed upon our tender hearts that only one special person could enter this room, the most high priest. I’m not exactly sure what he did in there (most certainly he would never open the ark of the covenant or his face would melt off), but I imagined it had something to do with swinging incense around. I relished with morbid curiosity one little detail about this priest. According to my teacher, he had to have a rope tied around his ankle lest he suddenly fell dead during his secret priestly duties inside the holy room. That way the other priests could pull him out without entering the room themselves.
I was fascinated by this. Did he have to call out every now and then to let the others know he was still alive? Did anybody ever have to be dragged out? Was death by the holy of holies an occupational hazard priests knew came with the vocation? If someone did die, was the cause of death an unfortunately timed heart attack or the result of being in the presence of God and the ark?
Throughout the years the curtain would make an appearance in the Jesus narrative. Again, the reference was mysterious and strange to my young mind: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50–51 NIV).
I’ve often wondered how the priests reacted when that curtain was torn in two. Maybe they scrambled to sew it back up or took turns holding it together. But the damage was done. The holy place had been opened and was exposed for anyone to see.
What was seen could no longer be unseen.
Christ’s sacrifice for humanity could not be reversed. No longer was holiness restricted to a secret room or reserved for a certain person. It was for all people across all time. What happened to that secret holy place? Where would God reside now that the unknown had been made known?
Today, some religious traditions still recognize places and things as most holy, and I respect that. It’s important to keep an attitude of respect and awe around worship practices. Keeping certain places and items sacred and setting them apart for the glory of God is important to maintaining a rhythm of faith and life that helps bind us to the wonder and mystery of God.
What if a holy of holies could reside within our hearts? What if our very lives could be tied to the sacred and holy?
The curtain had been flung aside to reveal the accessibility of God and God’s Spirit. I have a feeling holiness had been already residing wherever it wanted to reside, because as much as we try, we cannot contain God or make him fit into a mold, an inner chamber, or a gold box. Since the beginning, holiness has been infused into creation and into God’s people. The holy can be found in a lunar eclipse and in the face of a newborn baby, in the mist covering a mountain range and in kindness shown to someone in need.
Holiness is flung to the farthest reaches of the universe and in the smallest cell.
When Christ tore that curtain away, he gave humankind permission to embrace what we have been longing for since we were placed on this good earth: connection with our holy creator. He reminded us of who we really are, why we were created, and what grand potential we have.
With the curtain gone, we are presented an invitation to create a new holy of holies within our hearts.
Stephanie Clinton is a writer and blogger but more importantly, a wife and mother to two little boys. In her free time (if there is any) she can be found wiping snotty noses and volunteering in her community and school. Learn more about Stephanie along with her passion to encourage women and lighten their load at www.hugskissesandsnot.com.
Photograph © Manos Gkikas, used with permission