Was the tearing of the temple veil mentioned in three Gospels a literal, physical event, or is it meant to be symbolic of the reality that we can now enter the holy of holies due to Christ’s death on the cross?
The temple veil or curtain did literally tear, as the synoptic Gospels record (see, for example, Matthew 27:51). In addition, the event does signify that we can draw near to God, receiving him intimately as members of his Catholic Church in Holy Communion (see John 6:51-58; 1 Corinthians 11:23-33). We need not go to the temple in Jerusalem to have this intimate communion, for in the New Covenant Jesus’ body becomes “the definitive Temple” (CCC 593, 586). That is why the sacrifice of the Mass, which sacramentally “re-presents” Christ’s one paschal sacrifice (see CCC 1366-67), can be offered at any Catholic church in the world.
In the Old Covenant, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, i.e., the place inside the veil, and only on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:1-34). Any other attempt would result in death (see Leviticus 16:1-2; Numbers 3:10, 18:7). But the temple veil was first torn in two, and then then the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the latter event definitively conveying that temple worship had given way to New Covenant worship.
By Tom Nash