You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy.
Exodus 26:33 (NRSVCE)
When I was a child, I had a fascination with spaces that were off-limits to me. Perhaps it was simply part of my personality or the fact that, as the youngest of four siblings, there were so many places that were forbidden and so many things from which I was banned from touching, looking at, or checking out.
As I grew up, I was keenly aware of the rites of passage I passed through. Some where public and institutional like church confirmation, getting my driver’s license, and graduation. Others were more subtle and social, like being an underclassman invited to a party with all upperclassmen, or my older brother letting me have a beer during my weekend visiting him at college. In each of these cases there was an understanding that I had reached a new level of experience. Things that were once off-limits had opened up to new possibilities.
In today’s chapter, God provides Moses with instructions for what is commonly referred to as the Tabernacle, or the Tent of Meeting. It was basically a large, portable temple that they could take with them as they wandered their way to the Promised Land and set up wherever they were encamped.
The design for the Tabernacle included three concentric spaces. There was an open outer courtyard. Then there was a smaller covered inner section known as “The Holy Place,” with a third even smaller section known as “The Most Holy Place” or “The Holy of Holies.” This smallest area was the most sacred, and it was where the Hebrews put the Ark of the Covenant. There was a giant, thick, and colorful curtain that separated this Most Holy space from everyone. Only the High Priest was allowed in this space, and that happened only once a year. It was exclusive. It was special. It was a sacred space that constantly reminded the Hebrew people of the clear divide between them and the divine.
Granted, all of the instructions for the design of this temple tent in today’s chapter are not the most inspiring thing to read. Nevertheless, I find a really cool and inspiring lesson buried in the blueprint. As with yesterday’s chapter, the lesson is hidden in the understanding of the maturing relationship between God and humanity.
An often overlooked detail recorded in Luke’s biography of Jesus is something that happened the moment Jesus died on the cross. Luke records:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
I find the curtain separating the Hebrews from God’s Holy Presence was like a parent telling their young child that there are some things that are simply off-limits. When Jesus died and rose from the dead, it was a spiritual rite of passage for humanity. The off-limits curtain was torn. The Spirit of God would be poured out for any and all. Now, the focus shifted from sacred space being a 16’x48’x15′ inner sanctum fixed in Jerusalem to the possibility that sacred space could be anywhere at any time.
Along my journey, I have sat in small corporate conference rooms while clients have shared with me some of the most intimate things. In that moment, it was sacred space. I was once in a humble Junior High camp chapel in rural Iowa when Holy Spirit poured out like at Pentecost. In that moment it was a sacred space. I have communed with God and received the Spirit’s guidance driving in the car, taking a shower, and while mowing the lawn. A Volkswagen, a bathroom, and a yard were sacred spaces. Perhaps most commonly, I have experienced sacred space around the dinner table just as I shared in yesterday’s post.
I have observed that for many in the generations before me this fundamental spiritual paradigm shift was never understood. For the majority of believers I observed in my childhood and youth, the bricks-and-mortar church building and inner sanctum of the church building’s sanctuary were treated like modern versions of the Tabernacle. After Jesus’ death tore the curtain and made it possible for sacred space to be any place at any time, it seems to me that the institutional church sewed the curtain back together and hung it back up in their Cathedrals.
I believe, however, that we are moving into a time when followers of Jesus are tearing the curtain once more and rediscovering the fullness of what Jesus meant when He told his followers, “I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”
A rite of passage for all of humanity. From bricks-and-mortar to flesh-and-blood.
“Old things pass away. Behold, new things come.”