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The Sanctuary in the Temple of Jerusalem

The Sanctuary in the Temple of Jerusalem

The altar of holocausts

The Court of Israel, right in the middle of the Temple, was the place which only men could enter. This Court was small, and was like a porch looking out onto the Court of the Priests, a wider space that held the altar of holocausts and that stood before the sanctuary building.

Altar of Holocausts

The altar of holocausts, the main altar in the Temple, was the altar on which all sacrificial victims, lambs, calves or pigeons, were offered and immolated.

.Men who came to bring a sacrifice would call a priest, explain the purpose of their visit, and hand over the lamb or turtle doves. The priest took the victim, went up to the altar and performed the offering (Lev. 12:1-8). Christ is thinking of such a situation when he speaks of the man who while bringing his gift to the altar, remembers that his brother has something against him (Mt 5:23-24). "Leaving your gift before the altar" means: leaving it there, in the Court of Israel.

The Sanctuary

Inside view of the Holy Place

The most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem was undoubtedly the Sanctuary. It was an impressively high building, of white stones some of which were of very great size: 36 feet long, 18 feet broad and 12 feet high! The building had a vestibule and two halls.

The first hall was called the Holy Place. No one was allowed to enter it, except priests twice a day. It was beautifully decorated, as described in 1 Kings 6,15-36.

There were three main religious objects in the Holy Place: the altar on which incense was burned, the table with bread offerings and the candlestick with seven branches.

The table with bread offerings

The shewbread used for the offering consisted of twelve loaves (representing the twelve tribes of Israel). It was to be continually before God as an oblation. (Lev 24:5-9) Periodically it had to be renewed. Priests, and only priests, had then to eat the old loaves. Jesus refers to this when he proves to the Pharisees that every law knows of exceptions. He points out that David ate of these loaves when no other bread could be found, and - in spite of the ordinary prohibition - he did not sin in doing so. In special circumstances, therefore, laws do not bind. (Mk 2:2.5-26; Mt 12:3-4; see 1 Sam 2 1 :5-7)

The altar of incense

The altar of incense

The priests had been divided into twelve priestly orders. Each of these orders did service for one month a year. Zechariah, for instance, belonged to the priestly order of Abiah (Lk 1:5), and had left his home to serve for a month in Jerusalem (Lk 1:23: when the month is over he returns home ) . The priests had the custom of determining by lot who was to perform the oblation of incense, and so one day Zechariah's turn came (I.k 1:8-9). As was done normally Zechariah then entered the Holy Place all alone to burn incense. It was there --in the Holy Place-that he saw the vision: "An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar where the incense was burned". (Lk 1:11)

After the burning of the incense and when the vision had disappeared, Zechariah came out into the court of the priests, facing the people in the court of Israel who were waiting for him (Lk 1.21-22). He could not speak to them, but he explained by signs that he had had a vision.

The lamp-stand with seven branches

Lamp-stand signifying prayer

As prescribed in Exodus 25,31-40, the Holy Place also held special lamp-stand with seven branches. It was made of the purest gold. Each branch held a cup in which wicks burnt on oil.

The number seven signified blessings and holiness. The burning lamps symbolised people’s prayers continuously rising up to God.

The Holy of Holies

Ground plan of the sanctuary

Beyond the Holy Place was a smaller room called the Holy of Holies. This room originally contained the Ark of the Covenant: a large box covered in gold that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments. There were no windows in the Holy of Holies or doors to let in light.

The Ark of the Covenant was covered with a lid, known as the kapporet in Hebrew or hilasterion in Greek; both words mean: ‘propritiation’. God was believed to be invisibly present there, as it were sitting on his throne. The most important rite on the annual day of atonement involved the High Priest sprinkling sacrificial blood on it. On account of its function regarding reconciliation, it was also called the ‘throne of mercy’.

At the Exile, the ark of the covenant was hidden by priests and never found again. So there was no ark of the covenant at the time of Christ. As far as we know there was nothing inside it except a flat, black stone on which the High Priest put a thurible during the one single occasion of the year when he, and he alone, was allowed to enter the room: on the day of Atonement.

The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a curtain of precious material: the veil. It is this veil that was split into two at Jesus' death (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23: 45). We have to understand the symbolic meaning of this for the evangelists. In the Temple of the Old Testament, God was not approachable. There were so many obstacles preventing people from drawing near to God: the prohibition to non-Jews, the prohibition to women, the prohibition for men to enter the court of priests and for priests to enter the Holy of Holies! By Jesus’ sacrifice all nations gained access to God.

For the Fathers of the Church all these sacred objects which they knew so well from Scripture were symbols and images of Mary’s priestly dignity. She was the sanctuary itself, the Holy of Holies, since she carried Christ in her womb. She was the ark of the covenant, and its lid of propitiation, because of her closeness to God and her priestly mediation for people. Most of all, she was herself a sacrificer, more intimately associated to Christ the High Priest than any other human being ever would be.

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