What is this hope; this anchor; on which the soul is secured; and which enters as the scripture says “within the veil”? And what can this mean; this “within the veil”?
The words are a mighty bit obscure here; there’s nothing, no word amongst them all which has not got a clear and direct meaning easily to be had from a dictionary; but as is pretty usual with this writer (To The Hebrews) the words as he puts them together carry a pregnant mystery and an arch strangeness about them; the apprehension of his readers is often that there lies behind his words here and elsewhere in his book, some very worthwhile truth to be mined out.
It’s pretty certain that the writer at least on one of several levels is referring deliberately to the saying carried in all three of the Synoptic Gospels that at Christ’s moment of death; “the veil of the temple was rent in the midst”.
It’s pretty usual for this rending of the Temple veil to be understood to have actually happened as an historical fact. The curtain in the Temple at Jerusalem, outside whose city gates Christ suffered, the curtain ripped from top to bottom as Christ expired on the cross. Darkness and an earthquake are said to have accompanied this event also.
Figuratively the rending of the Temple curtain, which in actuality would have revealed to open view a place of the Temple disallowed previously to be looked upon excepting by priests, maybe even only by certain priests; figuratively then, this rending of the curtain is said usually to mean that Christ’s death had in fact broken down the barrier between God and the ordinary man, woman and child; and thus had allowed all of us who desired and desire to obtain free and unobstructed, unmediated, access to the Grace and Love of The Lord. No more need for daily token animal sacrificial offerings; it is now that as the Writer to the Hebrews says: “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Truly sanctified; and not just in token; because the law has been completed by the acts of the life of Jesus Christ, and has been freed from legalism and from being a ‘watchdog’ over the individuals of, and the collective of, Hebrew nation. The law completed is now The Law of Love; a law which Christ’s followers keep because they love Him. “If you love me you will keep my commandments” had said Jesus.
Now for some information about me and my life. I read English Literature at College; and there I became acquainted with the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. Paradise Lost is a long narrative poem which retells the Biblical story of The Fall of Adam and Eve from the Paradise of The Garden of Eden. John Milton tells us in his poem that he writes it so as to “justify the ways of God to men.” That is, he wanted to provide a rationale to men and women stating why life is like it is; and to explain what is going on on earth over the course of history and time.
John Milton was a dissenting non-conformist by religion; a Puritan; as opposed to being an English Episcopalian, or even a proscribed from Britain Roman Catholic. Milton’s was a fierce and individual liberty which he proclaimed through his understanding of the gospels and of the Bible and of God. In his poem Paradise Lost he expresses in the final book (Book 12) much of his view of the meaning and the progress of human time from its beginnings from a preternatural Chaos to Eden to Noah to Moses to David to Christ and to The Second Coming. He does so under a narrative structure which has the Archangel Gabriel, whom he calls the ‘social angel’, expounding to Adam the course which earth history is predestined, (but not predetermined) to take.
Now when I first took up Paradise Lost to read I found it extremely difficult. I was not familiar with the style nor the vocabulary nor the theology. Nonetheless I was the type who perseveres and I did manage to gain eventually some understanding of the poem. The important point I want to make about my understanding of the poem at that time is its intellectual nature; in that I felt no kinship with the sentiments emotionally, even though I had come to understand Milton’s general argument.
In an odd sort of way I felt at that time I might even agree with his sentiments; yet they were for me then to hard, too severe; too austere and to me then uncompromising. Thus in an odd way my heart even nodded assent to Paradise Lost but I was perhaps too young to bear the consequences of taking the poem into my heart. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has a close affinity to what I am saying in his poem Dejection: An Ode, where he writes:
“Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!“
But like a sort of magic charm Milton and his Paradise Lost has grown on me to become a frequent resort for me to visit increasingly in my latter years. Those justifications of God’s ways to men and the expansive narrative of time from Chaos to The Endtime, once too cold and remote, too severe and bare, are now a comfort to me; and a hope. Thus we come back to The letter to The Hebrews, and to that hope which by way of Christ’s death on the cross leads us to be able to “entereth into that within the veil”
And for myself it appears, it feels, dare I say it is, just like that; reading Milton now, as with my reading of The Bible now, in comparison to my reading of these books as a youth, is entering into a world which remained for many years undiscovered to me; yet hinted at by my sense that here in my early reading was something reasonable, of good cheer and assentable to, even in the heart; but yet too strong meat, too hard for me to really and truly internalise.
For me my experience has been that over the years I have imperceptibly been allowed bit by bit some access so as to be able now to “entereth into that within the veil”.
The point I want to make is about this sine qua non of commitment; in the way that this commitment summed up in the first of Christ’s two commandments:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”
Now I am not claiming for myself an utter exclusive and wholly dedicated allegiance to God of the intensity which this commandment is able to demand of a person. I am no plaster saint. I am fallible and I tend to go astray from the narrow path too often. I did say I feel I have been allowed some measure of being let to enter “within the veil”; and the Christian Journey is a ceaseless one and there is always further to go on it. As St. Augustine said: “Humility is endless”.
Now when I read The Bible or some religious writer of deep faith like John Milton, my whole self does respond and I feel very often that I just would not be able to live without having these words available to me at times especially when I feel I desperately need them to be around. This statement might sound a bit precious to you; that I feel I could not live without these books around me; as my ‘life-support’; a bit exaggerated and hyperbolic; but they are not.
I do believe I would not have come so far to love life and have it in such abundance had I turned away from Christ and had never become a follower of His. I do believe that in order for me to have survived as a non Christian I would have had to harden my heart so far as to be callous to the sufferings of people in the world and to have been able to live life without a hope and sens eof purpose and meaning for life. I doubt whether I could have hardened my heart sufficiently to prevent me from despair and disintegration as a personality.
It is the fact of the comfort from God, and the Grace and Love shown me by Him, which allows me to see further into the pain and sufferings of the world and to sympathise with those who bear these things and yet hold onto something greater, above, beyond, this dreadful suffering; and this is my hope. Having been privileged to be admitted, into, some distant from the heart of it, into a minor vestibule, just beyond the veil means for me that I feel I have been allowed to feel and so to do – I hope and pray, – more for others than I otherwise would have been able to do.
Then again I say this is not to say there is much more left to be done and that I have perhaps omitted occasions when I could have done some of that more to be done.
So what exactly is this ‘within the veil”which I am making so much of; describe it to me you ask?
Let me close now and sum up to you using words from the final book of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost; words which go as close as I am able to express to saying what a sense of being ‘within the veil’ might mean:
“Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with feare the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.
To whom thus also th’ Angel last repli’d:
This having learnt, thou hast attained the summe
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the Starrs
Thou knewst by name, and all th’ ethereal Powers,
All secrets of the deep, all Natures works,
Or works of God in Heav’n, Aire, Earth, or Sea,
And all the riches of this World enjoydst,
And all the rule, one Empire; onely add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add vertue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charitie, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier farr.”