For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Little maiden Mary

The Temple Studies Symposia (I have mentioned this lot before) was held in the College of King's Chapel, London today, this time on the Old Testament Temple vestments and especially the veil that hung before the Holy of Holies. It was all good, but Dr. Margaret Barker's lecture was the highlight: how lightly that lady wears her astonishing learning.

I can't share all that was said, but something I would like to communicate is a fascinating little piece of tradition about a little maid called Mary... But first a quick detour to set up the anecdote.

The veil was most likely woven with a linen warp (the vertical threads that hold the cloth together) and dyed wool provided the three colours, crimson, Tyrian purple and blue, as well as the white of the linen. There were cherubim embroidered over it: no-one knows in what pattern. Josephus and Philo both agree on the interpretation of the veil and its colours. Linen, spun from flax which grows out of the earth, represents Earth; blue the Air; and crimson Fire. The purple represents Water, which seems odd, although bear in mind that no-one is quite sure (even though they know the sea-snail that produced the dye) what the colour was - it depends how many times one dips the wool etc. Thus the four elements are represented in the colours, making the veil an image of the stuff of Creation, and marking off the Holy Place or the Tabernacle (which images God's creation of the world as a dwelling for Himself) from the Holy of Holies. The veil is therefore matter covering the invisible God, who dwells within in the Holy of Holies - remember Christ's words, the kingdom of God is in the midst? Temple talk, apparently. The High Priest is in a sense deified - there is good evidence that he was ritually worshipped as personifying God on occasion - and becomes representative of God to the people when he enters the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and comes out vested in the same colours as the veil (representing matter) but also with interwoven gold thread: he carries the divine within the matter of his vestment. Note that the book of Hebrews, thick with Temple imagery, speaks of Christ, the High Priest, who carries out from the Holy of Holies Incarnate Deity (pure gold within the elements of Creation) from behind the veil that shuts God off from our sight.

The veil being so huge (40 cubits by 20 cubits) and heavy fabric, it was whoppingly heavy when it was washed in the laver. Imagine a large of curtain (say, seven by seven feet) soaking wet, and then multiply the surface area by 25 or so... It took 300 priests for wash-day. For other soiling involving ritual impurity, the veil was cut into strips for Temple lamp wicks, and a new one woven. Because of its immense size it couldn't be woven all of a piece, but was made of 72 woven strips each about a hand's breadth.

Who did the weaving? There is some tantalising evidence in Baruch, for example, who mentions that the young maidens who wove the veil were commanded to destroy it on the approach of the Babylonian army to Jerusalem. This tends to back up the New Testament apocrypha (Gospel of St. James), which contains an account of the weaving of the Temple veil by Mary as one of the little maidens. Now this is fascinating indeed - together with the traditions that (1) Mary was devoted to the life of the Temple by her parents Joachin and Anna when she was a mere three-year-old and remained there until her betrothal and (2) that Mary was a consecrated virgin whose projected marriage to Joseph was a Jewish legal form for those in that state of life. A picture emerges of the little looms of these consecrated virgins of a tender age, weaving the long strips of cloth for the veil. And it is known that Herod the Great was carrying out major refurbishment of the Temple around that time. But the tradition has something more to add - that Mary wove strips of purple and of scarlet: the Water and the Fire of the Spirit.

The veil - Christ's flesh, from behind which his Divinity emerges into this world in the Incarnation - is woven by the little maid Mary. She weaves upon the warp of Earth the weft of Water and the Spirit.

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