April 23, 2017
(First Sunday after Easter)
In Middle Eastern countries - especially in the Middle East - if you are to look up at some of the mountains, you would see a tomb or tombs. The type of tomb that people are buried in. This was relatively common in that time; there existed various grave plots, but more prominently, the dead were usually buried in a tomb in one of the mountains.
Tombs are a place of death. And something about them is amazing. They are the place in this world which is the most hopeless, the most depressing, the most sorrowful, the most despairing, and the most forbidden. And yet on this earth that is where something great begins. Redemption begins in a tomb.
Redemption begins. Faith begins. The Good News begins. The word of Christ the Messiah begins. Salvation begins. The Gospel begins. All this and more begins at a tomb. And who would’ve ever thought of such a thing? None of us here would think of starting our new life inside of a tomb; yet in many ways we all have.
The tomb is a place where our hopes, dreams, our life and everything ends. The tomb is a place of ending. But with God, the tomb known as the place of the end, actually becomes a great beginning.
The kingdom of God can work in unexpected ways as we’ve learned through Jesus Christ. With God, the journey does not so much go from life to death, as it does from death to life. The end is the beginning this case. And so, for any of us Christians to find our life, we must find our tomb - the tomb of Jesus Christ. We must go to a place symbolizing death for us to be able to find our life. We must go to Easter.
It is only when we come to the place of the end that we can actually find our new beginning. For it is in Christ, in the end of His life in the tomb, that we find a new beginning. It is in that tomb of hopelessness that we can find hope. It is in the place of sorrow that we find true joy. In the place of death that we are born again. So with God in a tomb we find our birth.
In the Old Testament times, as most of us know, there was a ritual in which a goat was chosen in a red thread was tied to its horn and was set free into the wilderness and called a scapegoat. This scapegoat took the sins of the Hebrews out into the wilderness. They were freed of their sins, because that scapegoat took them – all the people’s sin - out into the wilderness. And for them that was their new beginning each time this took place.
There’s something interesting, however, in Judaic history that lends credence to the story of Jesus - not intentionally mind you, but it is there. Let me explain a little.
In the holy Temple in Jerusalem, there were two partitions or barriers, if you will, to separate the holy from the unholy - or to put it another way - separating God from mankind. One of the partitions consisted of two massive doors of gold and these were the doors to the holy place. The doors separated the holy place from the temple courts. And then deeper inside was a very large veil or curtain called a parochet that separated the holy place from the holy of holies and through which only the high priest could enter on the day of atonement. The day of the scapegoat.
These two partitions would represent separating of each of us from God - the Chasm him between sinful and the most holy. And as I’ve talked recently in a couple of my sermons, the veil of the holy of holies was torn in two - torn in two from top to bottom - which as we learn could only be done by God himself for a human being could only tear it from bottom to top. It was far too large and high for a man to be able to tear it.
And all this may seem like interesting trivia to someone who’s in anthropology or history, but in reality, it’s important to us as Christians. The reason that is the case is something that is significantly implied by some things that happened. By the veil to the holy of holies being torn in two. This tearing of the veil implies the barrier that was between mankind and God was removed!
However, some might say that there’s still the second barrier; the two golden doors. These doors are a second witness to the barrier between mankind and God being removed. Let me explain it differently and show you the significance.
The holiest day on the Jewish calendar … is Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). From the days of Aaron to AD 69 (with the exception being during the Babylonian captivity), the high priest would on this day cross over the veiled barrier and enter into the Holy of Holies and present the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant in order to make atonement for the Jewish people (Leviticus 23:26-32; Leviticus 16; Exodus 30:9-10).
There are many legends about this most holy of days, including the one about the high priest having a rope around his waist. According to the legend, the rope was used to pull the priest out if God judged him unworthy and struck him dead for his sins. However, and regardless of the validity of the legend, the holiness of Yom Kippur required the priest/intercessor to face God with the people’s sin and allow the blood of the sacrifice to cover our errors and restore us to a right relationship with God …. Sound like something or someone we know?
Interestingly enough, and according to Tractate Yoma 39B of the Talmud, two unique aspects of Yom Kippur observance ceased to occur around AD 30. First, the inability to adequately select via lot the sacrificial goat for the Day of Atonement and secondly, the scarlet cord at the Temple never turned white as a sign of the forgiveness of sins. But just what ceased to occur around that year? What happened that would negate the necessity of another Yom Kippur sacrifice? Jesus!
What is interesting is that there were two threads, and that their use had nothing to do with atonement. On Yom Kippur the Torah states that two goats are to be taken, one for a sacrifice to purify the tabernacle and a second to be sent into the wilderness. Tradition required one thread placed on the horns of the goat sent to the wilderness, and a second was placed around the neck of a second goat to be sacrificed in the temple. The use of the thread was not a requirement from the Tenach (Hebrew Bible) at all. It was done for a very practical reason. Since two goats were chosen for that day, and they needed to be identical, in order to know which was chosen to be sent to the wilderness and which was to be used for a sacrifice in the temple, threads were placed on them. This way one could not be mixed with the other after the process of choosing which was to be used for what purpose had been decided. One red thread was placed around the throat of the goat to be sacrificed, to show that it was to be slaughtered. The other was placed in an obvious place, to show it was to be taken out to the wilderness. The changing colors, was a miracle and not a requirement of atonement, either Biblically or Rabbinically.
When we look at these miracles we see every one of them has to do with the priests and their temple service. When the priests were righteous and led by a righteous High Priest they merited to have miracles occur for them. But, as they failed to fulfill their duties righteously and properly, they failed to have miracles performed for them. They were no longer worthy of them.
We see that all the miracles stopped during this 40 year period. What is so important about these 40 years? If one looks at the historical sources, like Josephus, we see that by that time Jerusalem looked worse then any decadent modern city, with random acts of violence being common. Josephus describes the Sicarii, who used to mingle with the crowds and stab people with short knives killing them. Those behind the lawlessness were the priestly class who had close relations with the Roman overlords. Clearly no miracles could be performed for such people.
At the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross we are told the Temple veil separating the Holy of Holies from the people was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51-53; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This separation between God and mankind had been completed and/or realized with the death and resurrection of Jesus (Hebrews 9 and 10).
Jesus, while dying and living again during the spring feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits, is also our Yom Kippur sacrifice. He offered the final sacrifice necessary for the forgiveness of sins. He accomplished it all!
In the Talmud, the rabbis record that before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a strange thing began to take place in the temple. The second barrier, large golden doors, began to open by themselves. The rabbis record that began to happen about 40 years before A.D. 70, which means A.D. 30. Which just happens to be the same time that Jesus died as the final atonement and thus remove the barrier between mankind and God.
The rabbis themselves bear witness concerning the removal of the second barrier, and thus, that at the time of Christ’s death, that which was separating God from mankind was removed and that the way to his presence is now open.
So, our holy Scriptures hint at something that the jewish rabbis of the time confirm. The veil was indeed torn, but they confirm something mysteriously left out of our Scriptures; that of the two gold doors opening miraculously on their own each year for 40 years. I need not explain the significance of “40” due to home many times God has required a period this long between events.
So, from our Christian perspective, we have been freed to approach God freely and without any further “sacrifice”, because Christ was the ultimate and last necessary sacrifice to free us all from our sins, inadequacies, failures and flaws. We no longer had to wait a year for our forgiveness; we merely go to the priest and ask our forgiveness from God, thru the priest.
God is always approachable. No longer do we need to wait until the “proper” time. No longer need we wait to approach God and receive the love and grace He has for each of us. Easter is our freedom; Easter is the opening of the tomb; Easter is the opening of the Holy of Holies that all may now enter – both now and in the life to come!
Let us pray.
Father God, on Easter morning we are reminded of the wonderful gift Your Son gave to each of us – freedom to approach You and freedom from our sins.
Help us to contemplate and absorb the importance of this. Thru You, miracles happen. Thru You, the miracle of Yom Kippur took place each year. Yet, at the time of Christ’s death, You changed they way a miracle took place. You wanted to show that Savior had indeed arrived, but was killed by the corrupt authorities of the time. Further, You showed that a new priestly class was now given in the persons of the Apostles. During the 40 years after Jesus resurrection, the veils were torn and open, so that all may know that You have no barrios between us and You.
We thank You, oh Lord that You have given Yourself to us and that we need not go thru the veils to find You and receive Your grace. Help us all to know that we can approach You at anytime with out worry “red tape” keeping us from You.
Help us to continue on our Easter path and allow ourselves to be open to the nudging’s of the Holy Spirit, in subtle and not so subtle ways in which You are asking us to change and show the grace of the resurrection to others we meet. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.