I recently visited a church at the end of Lent where all the statues and the crucifix were covered by purple veils. Why is the cross hidden from view at the very time when we should be meditating more on the passion of Christ?
The custom of covering the crucifix and other images in the church with purple veils from Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, until Holy Saturday was once very common but now is much less so.
After the Second Vatican Council there were moves to abolish the custom altogether but fortunately it has survived.
Even more, the Bishops’ Conference of each country can decide whether to make the custom obligatory in its territory.
Where the custom is lived the crucifix and all other statues in the church are covered with a purple cloth without ornamentation from First Vespers on Passion Sunday to before the Easter Vigil.
The crucifix is unveiled after the Good Friday service, during which the cross is venerated by the faithful.
The only images not covered by a veil are those on the Stations of the Cross and any stained glass windows.
The statue of St Joseph, if outside the sanctuary, may remain uncovered during the month of March, when his feast occurs and he is specially honoured.
What is the origin of the custom? According to Fr Edward McNamara (cf. Zenit 050308), it may have derived from a practice in Germany in the ninth century of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent.
This cloth, known as the “Hungertuch” or hunger cloth, hid the altar from the view of the people until the reading of the Passion on Wednesday of Holy Week at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”
The veil in the temple of Jerusalem separated the Holy of Holies from the main body of the temple.
Some scholars say the custom was a remnant of the ancient practice of ritually expelling public penitents from the church at the beginning of Lent.
After the custom of public penance fell into disuse and the entire congregation was symbolically incorporated into the order of penitents through the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, it was no longer possible to expel them from the church and so instead the altar, or “Holy of Holies”, was shielded from view until they were reconciled with God at Easter.
Later on in the Middle Ages the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent.
The custom of limiting this veiling to the last two weeks of Lent, appears in the Ceremonial of Bishops in the seventeenth century.
The great nineteenth-century Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger gives a mystical interpretation of the veiling, based on the Gospel of St John, which was formerly read on Passion Sunday.
Just as Jesus hid himself from the Jews who wanted to stone him (cf. Jn 8:59), so by the veils he is now hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of his passion.
The statues of the saints are covered too since, if the Master himself is covered, so should be his servants.
Dom Gueranger also explains that while on the two feasts of the Finding and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross the cross is honoured as the throne of Christ’s victory, with its veiling in Lent it speaks to us of his suffering and humiliation.
Another spiritual interpretation of the veiling is based on the fact that in Christ’s passion not only was his divinity obscured but so was, in a certain sense, his humanity.
He was so disfigured by the blows and scourges that he was hardly recognisable as a human being.
We read in the prophet Isaiah’s depiction of the Suffering Servant, which has always been taken to refer to Christ: “As many were astonished at him – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men – so shall he startle many nations” (Is 52:14).
Likewise, we read in the psalm Jesus quoted while he hung on the cross: “But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people” (Ps 22:6).
So, in a sense, the veil hides Our Lord’s divinity and humanity, as did the wounds suffered in his passion.
Regardless of the original meaning of the veiling of the crucifix and statues, it has much to commend it as a way of helping us prepare for Our Lord’s Passover in the last two weeks of Lent.