Lent is a slow build. With each passing week, we go deeper into the heart of the desert and seek a deeper dependence upon the Lord. We all know that the week leading up to the Paschal Triduum is Holy Week, but fewer know that the week before Holy Week is known as Passiontide.
As we build up to the crucifixion, we fast from many of the little things that are celebratory. First we begin Lent by removing the Gloria, Alleluia, and flowers at the altar. This sets the tone for the season. When we get to the fifth week of Lent, Passion Sunday, the church starts to look even more noticeably different as we are at the cusp of the climax.
This is an old and beautiful tradition that works as a fast for our eyes. It is hard to miss, so inevitably, there are always many questions about why and how.
What do we veil during Passiontide?
We veil the crucifix and images of saints that are for public veneration. If this time falls in March and there is a statue of St Joseph outside the sanctuary, it is allowed to stay unveiled in order to honor him on March 17th. Images for the stations of the cross and stained glass windows should not be veiled. This tradition is not mandatory in the Novus Ordo, but it is coming back as a common practice
How do we veil the images?
The images should be veiled in a solid and plain fabric. Traditionally, this fabric is purple, but it sometimes switch for red on Palm Sunday. It should not be sheer or transparent and free from ornamentation. If a crucifix is too big to veil, the corpus alone is enough.
When do the veils come off?
The main crucifix in the church is unveiled during the liturgy on Good Friday. All other images should remain veiled until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. The images can be unveiled before the beginning of the liturgy if the church is kept dark until the Gloria.
Why do we veil the cross and images?
This is one of the traditions that has various applicable interpretations. Each is valid and helps in aiding the faithful in our preparation for Easter.
1. A Hidden Christ
We hear in the scriptures that Christ hid from the rage of the Jews in preparation for His Passion. When we enter the church, Christ is also hidden from us. If the King is hidden, the saints that point to Him must also be hidden. When Christ was being forced to suffer His passion at the hands of men, His divinity was hidden from those that wanted Him dead.
2. Continuing Traditions
Here are some excerpts from Zenit on some discovered historical evidence of this old tradition.
“It probably derives from a custom, noted in Germany from the ninth century, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent. This cloth, called the ‘Hungertuch’ (hunger cloth), hid the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday at the words ‘the veil of the temple was rent in two.’
“Some authors say there was a practical reason for this practice insofar as the often-illiterate faithful needed a way to know it was Lent. Others, however, maintain that it was a remnant of the ancient practice of public penance in which the penitents were ritually expelled from the church at the beginning of Lent. After the ritual of public penance fell into disuse — but the entire congregation symbolically entered the order of penitents by receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday — it was no longer possible to expel them from the church. Rather, the altar or ‘Holy of Holies’ was shielded from view until they were reconciled to God at Easter.
“For analogous motives, later on in the Middle Ages, the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent. The rule of limiting this veiling to Passiontide came later and does not appear until the publication of the Bishops’ Ceremonial of the 17th century.”
3. We are living the mystery
The New Liturgical Movement blog also proposes another interpretation. They propose that we cannot use the cross and images of a sign to a past event when we are living the mysteries currently. The quote St Thomas Aquinas’ same theory applied the lack of a consecration on Good Friday.
“The figure ceases on the advent of the reality. But this sacrament [i.e. the Eucharist] is a figure and a representation of our Lord’s Passion, as stated above. And therefore on the day on which our Lord’s Passion is recalled as it was really accomplished, this sacrament is not consecrated.” (ST III, q.83, a.2, ad 2)
We’re near the end, and now is the time to increase our focus through this journey of Lent. I invite you to share any pictures in the comments of your sanctuary or images veiled.
See New Advent for more information about Passiontide.