There are indications that to some
of those who took part in the crucifixion of Christ
His death presented hardly anything to distinguish
it from an ordinary execution; and there were others
who were anxious to believe that it had no features
which were extraordinary. But God did not leave
His Son altogether without witness. The end
of the Saviour’s sufferings was accompanied by
certain signs, which showed the interest excited by
them in the world unseen.
The first sign was the rending of
the veil of the temple. This was a heavy curtain
covering the entrance to the Holy Place or the entrance
to the Holy of Holies-most probably the
latter. Both entrances were thus protected,
and Josephus gives the following description of one
of the curtains, which will probably convey a fair
idea of either; five ells high and sixteen broad,
of Babylonian texture, and wonderfully stitched of
blue, white, scarlet and purple-representing
the universe in its four elements-scarlet
standing for fire and blue for air by their colours,
and the white linen for earth and the purple for sea
on account of their derivation, the one, from the
flax of the earth and the other from the shellfish
of the sea.
The fact that the rent proceeded from
top to bottom was considered to indicate that it was
made by the finger of God; but whether any physical
means may have been employed we cannot tell.
Some have thought of the earthquake, which took place
at the same moment, as being connected with it through
the loosening of a beam or some similar accident.
At critical moments in history, when
the minds of men are charged with excitement, even
slight accidents may assume remarkable significance.
Such incidents occur at turning-points of the life
even of individuals. They derive their significance
from the emotion with which the minds of observers
happen at the time to be filled. No doubt the
rending of the temple veil might appear to some a
pure accident, while in the minds of others it crystallised
a hundred surging thoughts. But we must ascribe
to it a higher dignity and a divine intention.
Like the pillar of cloud and fire
in the wilderness, it had a double face-one
of judgment and another of mercy.
It betokened the desecration of the
shrine and the exodus of the Deity from the temple
whose day of opportunity and usefulness was over.
And it is curious to note how at the time not only
the Christian but even the Jewish mind was big with
this thought. There is a Jewish legend in Josephus,
which is referred to also by the Roman historian Tacitus,
that at the Passover some years after this the east
door of the inner court of the temple, which was so
heavy that twenty men were required to close it, and
was, besides, at the moment strongly locked and barred,
suddenly at midnight flew open; and, the following
Pentecost, the priests whose duty it was to guard
the court by night, heard first a rushing noise as
of hurrying feet and then a loud cry, as of many voices,
saying, “Let us depart from hence.”
Nor was it only in Palestine that
in that age the air was charged with the impression
that a turning-point in history had been reached, and
that the ancient world was passing away. Plutarch
heard a singular story of one Epitherses from the
rhetorician Aemilianus, who had it from the man’s
father. On a certain occasion this Epitherses
happened to be a passenger on board a ship which got
becalmed among the Echinades. As it stood near
one of the islands, suddenly there came from the shore
a voice, loud and clear, calling Thamus, the pilot,
an Egyptian, by his name. Twice he kept silence;
but, when the call came the third time, he replied;
whereupon the voice cried still louder, “When
you come to the Paludes, proclaim that the great
Pan is dead.” Pan being the god of nature
in that ancient world, all who heard were terrified,
and they debated whether or not they should obey the
command. At last it was agreed that if, when
they came to the Paludes, it was windy, they
were not to obey, but, if calm, they would. It
turned out to be calm; and, accordingly, the pilot,
standing on the prow of the vessel, shouted out the
words; whereupon the air was filled, not with an echo,
but the loud groaning of a great multitude mingled
with surprise. The pilot was called before the
Emperor Tiberius, who strictly enquired into the truth
of the incident.
Such was the meaning of the rending
of the veil on its dark side: it denoted that
the reign of the gods was over and that Jerusalem was
no longer to be the place where men ought to worship.
But it had at the same time a bright side; and this
was the side for the sake of which the incident was
treasured by the friends of Jesus. It meant,
as St. Paul says, that the wall between Jew and Gentile
had been broken down. It meant, as is set forth
in the noble argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews,
that the system of ceremonies and intermediaries by
which under the Old Testament the worshipper might
approach God and yet was kept at a distance from Him
had been swept away. The heart of God is now
fully revealed, and it is a heart of love; and, at
the same time, the heart of man, liberated by the
sacrifice of Christ from the conscience of sin, as
it could never be by the offering of bulls and goats,
can joyfully venture into the divine presence and go
out and in with the freedom of a child. “Having
therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest
by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which
He hath consecrated for us, through the veil-that
is to say, His flesh-and having a High
Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with
a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
The second sign was the resurrection
of certain of the dead-“The graves
were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept
arose and came out of the graves after His resurrection,
and went into the holy city and appeared unto many.”
Whether or not the rending of the
veil in the temple was connected with the earthquake,
there is no doubt that this second sign was.
The graves in Palestine were caves in the rocks, the
mouths of which were closed with great stones.
Some of these stones were shaken from their places
by the earthquake; and the bodies themselves, which
lay on shelves or stood upright in niches, may have
been disturbed. But in some of them a greater
disturbance occurred: besides the external shaking
there took place within them a motion of the life-giving
breath of God.
In the minds of many devout scholars
this miracle has excited suspicion on several accounts.
They say it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture
elsewhere, according to which Christ was the firstfruits
of them that slept. If these dead bodies were
reanimated at the moment of this earthquake, they,
and not He, were the firstfruits. To this it
is answered that St. Matthew is careful to note that
they came out of their graves “after His resurrection”;
so that St. Matthew still agrees with St. Paul in
making Christ the first to rise. But, then, it
is asked, in what condition were they between their
réanimation and their resurrection? The
Evangelist appears to state that they rose from death
to life at the moment of the earthquake, but did not
emerge from the tomb till the third day afterwards,
when Christ had risen. Is this credible? or
is it an apocryphal marvel, which has been interpolated
in the text of St. Matthew? The other Evangelists,
while, along with St. Matthew, narrating the rending
of the veil, do not touch on this incident at all.
The whole representation, it is argued, lacks the
sobriety which is characteristic of the authentic miracles
of the Gospels and broadly separates them from the
ecclesiastical miracles, about which there is generally
an air of triviality and grotesqueness.
On the other hand, there is no indication
in the oldest and best manuscripts of St. Matthew
that this is an interpolation; and many of the acutest
minds have felt this trait to be thoroughly congruous
and suitable to its place. If, they contend,
He who had just died on Calvary was what He gave Himself
out and we believe Him to be, His death must have
excited the profoundest commotion in the kingdoms of
the dead. The world of living men and women was
insensible to the character of the event which was
taking place before its eyes; but the world unseen
was agitated as it never had been before and never
was to be again. It was not unnatural, but the
reverse, that some of the dead, in their excitement
and eagerness, should even press back over the boundaries
of the other world, in order to be in the world where
Christ was. The question where they were or what
they were doing between their réanimation and
resurrection is a triviality not worth considering.
At all events, they rose after their Lord; and was
it not appropriate that when, after the forty days,
He ascended to heaven, there to be received by rejoicing
angels and archangels, He should not only appear in
the flesh, but be accompanied by specimens of what
His resurrection power was ultimately to do for all
believers? If it be asked who the favoured saints
were to whom this blessed priority was vouchsafed,
we cannot tell. The dust, however, was not far
away of many whom the Lord might delight to honour-patriarchs,
like Abraham; kings, like David; prophets, like Isaiah.
But the true significance of this
sign is not dependent on such speculations.
Even if it should ever be discovered, as it is not
in the least likely to be, that this story was interpolated
in St. Matthew, and we should be driven to the conclusion
that it was invented by the excited fancy of the primitive
Christians, even then we should have to ask what caused
them to invent it. And the only possible answer
would be, that it was the force of the conviction burning
within them that by His death and resurrection Christ
had opened the gates of death to all the saints.
This was the glorious faith which was begotten by
the experiences of those never-to-be-forgotten days,
whether the sight of these resurrected saints played
any part or not in maturing it; and it is now the
faith of the Church and the faith of mankind.
This may well be called the rending
of another veil. If in the ancient world there
was a veil on the face of God, there was a veil likewise
on the face of eternity. The home of the soul
was hidden from the children of men. They vaguely
surmised it, indeed; they could never believe that
they were wholly dust. But, apart from Christ,
the speculations even of the wisest as to the other
world are hardly more correct or certain than might
be the speculations of infants in the womb as to the
condition of this world. Christ, on the contrary,
always spoke of the world invisible with the freedom
and confidence of one to whom it was native and well
known; and His resurrection and ascension afford the
most authentic glimpses into the realm of immortality
which the world has ever received.
In this sign, indeed, it is with the
death and not with the resurrection that this authentication
is connected. But the resurrection of Christ
is allied in the most intimate manner with His death.
It was the public recognition of His righteousness.
Since, however, He died not for Himself alone, but
as a public person, His mystical body has the same
right to resurrection, and in due time it will be
made manifest that, He having discharged every claim
on their behalf, death has now no right to detain
The first sign was in the physical
world; the second was in the underworld of the dead;
but the third was in the common world of living men.
This was the acknowledgment of Christ by the centurion
who superintended His crucifixion.
Whether, like the preceding signs,
this third one is to be connected with the earthquake
is a question. Probably the answer ought to be
in the affirmative. The sensation produced by
an earthquake is like nothing else in nature; and
its first effect on an unsophisticated mind is to
create the sense that God is near. Probably,
therefore, the earthquake was felt by the centurion
to be the divine Amen to the thoughts which had been
rising in his mind, and it gave them a speedy and
complete delivery in his confession.
This confession was, however, the
result of his observation of Jesus throughout His
whole trial and the subsequent proceedings; and it
is an eloquent tribute to our Lord’s behaviour.
The centurion may have been at the side of Jesus
from the arrest to the end. Through those unparalleled
hours he had observed the rage and injustice of His
enemies; and he had marked how patient, unretaliating,
gentle and magnanimous He had been. He had heard
Him praying for His crucifiers, comforting the thief
on the cross, providing for His mother, communing
with God. More and more his interest was excited
and his heart stirred, till at last he was standing
opposite the cross, drinking in every syllable
and devouring every movement; and, when the final
prayer was uttered and the earthquake answered it,
his rising conviction brimmed over and he could not
withhold his testimony.
St. Luke makes him say only, “This
was a righteous man,” while the others report,
“This was the Son of God.” But St.
Luke’s may include theirs; because, if the centurion
meant to state that the claims of Jesus were just,
what were His claims? At Pilate’s judgment-seat
he had heard it stated that Jesus claimed to be the
Son of God, and perhaps he had heard Him make this
claim Himself in reply to Pilate’s question.
This name, along with others like it, had been hurled
at Jesus, in his hearing, by those standing round
But what did he mean when he made
this acknowledgment? It has been held that all
which he, a heathen, could imply was that Jesus was
a son of God in the sense in which the Greeks and
Romans believed Hercules, Castor and other heroes
to be sons of their deities. This may be near
the truth; but his soul was moved, his mind was opened;
and, once in the way, he could easily proceed further
in the knowledge of Christ. Tradition says that
his name was Longinus, and that he became bishop of
Cappadocia and ultimately died a martyr.
Have we not here the rending of a
third veil? There is a veil on the face of God
which requires to be removed; and there is a veil on
the face of eternity which requires to be removed;
but the most fatal veil is that which is on the heart
of the individual and prevents him from seeing the
glory of Christ. It was on the faces of nearly
all the multitude that day assembled round the cross.
It was on the faces of the poor soldiers gambling
within a few feet of the dying Saviour; in their case
it was a veil of insensibility. It was on the
faces of the ecclesiastics and the mob of Jerusalem;
and in their case it was a thick veil of prejudice.
The greatest sight ever witnessed on earth was there
beside them; but they were stoneblind to it.
The glory of Christ is still the greatest
sight which anyone can see between the cradle and
the grave. And it is now as near everyone of
us as it was to the crowd on Calvary. Some see
it; for the veil upon their faces is rent; and they
are transfixed and transformed by the sight.
But others are blinded. How near one may be
to Jesus, how much mixed up with His cause, how well
informed about His life and doctrine, and yet never
see His glory or know Him as a personal Saviour!
It is said that people may spend a lifetime in the
midst of perfect scenery and yet never awake to its
charm; but by comes a painter or poet and drinks the
beauty in, till he is intoxicated with it and puts
it into a glorious picture or a deathless song.
So can some remember a time when Jesus, though in
a sense well known, was nothing to them; but at a
certain point a veil seemed to rend and an entire change
supervened; and ever since then the world is full
of Him; His name seems written on the stars and among
the flowers; He is their first thought when they wake
and their last before they sleep; He is with them in
the house and by the way; He is their all in all.
This is the most critical rending
of the veil; because, when it takes place, the others
follow. When we have our eyes opened to see the
glory of Christ, we soon know the Father also; and
the darkness passes from the face of eternity, because
eternity for us is to be forever with the Lord.