It has been the custom of the Roman Church, at least in modern times (we mean from the 17th Century forward), to veil the crosses and the images of the saints from the 5th Sunday of Lent until Easter. This has been, and ought to continue to be, one of the defining characteristics of the season of Passiontide – a season which, if after the postconciliar liturgical reforms lost in name, need not be lost in spirit.
Still in many churches throughout the West, crosses and statues are veiled now and will remain veiled for two full weeks. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes this custom as follows: “Before Vespers of Saturday preceding Passion Sunday [i.e. the 5th Sunday of Lent] the crosses, statues, and pictures of our Lord and of the saints on the altar and throughout the church, with the sole exception of the crosses and pictures of the Way of the Cross, are to be covered with a violet veil, not translucent, nor in any way ornamented. The crosses remain covered until after the solemn denudation of the principal crucifix on Good Friday. The statues and pictures retain their covering, no matter what feast may occur, until the Gloria in Excelsis of Holy Saturday.” However, it is noted that the statue of St. Joseph may remain uncovered, if outside the sanctuary, during the month of March, which is dedicated to his honor.
Of course, this practice is no longer mandatory in the Novus Ordo, but it is certainly permitted. However, if the custom is to return to popularity, it will be necessary to come to some understanding of the meaning behind the veiling. Why does the Church veil the cross in these final days of Lent, a time when she is most intent on meditating upon the Lord's dolorous passion?
The Mystical Interpretation
Abbot Gueranger enlightens us with a mystical interpretation of the Gospel which, in former times, was read on this Sunday: As Christ hid himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities (John 8:59), so now he is hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of his passion.
“The presentiment of that awful hour [of our Savior’s passion] leads the afflicted mother [the Church] to veil the image of her Jesus: the cross is hidden from the eyes of the faithful. The statues of the saints, too, are covered; for it is but just that, if the glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servant should not appear.
“The interpreters of the liturgy tell us that this ceremony of veiling the crucifix during Passiontide, expresses the humiliation to which our Savior subjected Himself, of hiding Himself when the Jews threatened to stone Him, as is related in the Gospel of Passion Sunday [John 8:46-59, They took up stones therefore to cast at him. But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:59)]. The Church begins this solemn rite with the Vespers of the Saturday before Passion Sunday.”
The Spiritual Interpretation
Dom Gueranger continues and directs us to acts of devotion for the Cross: “Twice during the course of the year, that is, on the feasts of its Invention and Exaltation, this sacred Wood will be offered to us that we may honour it as the trophy of our Jesus’ victory; but now, it speaks to us but of His sufferings, it brings with it no other idea but that of His humiliation.”
Considering that, in the season of our Lord’s passion, all the strength of our devotion should be directed to the Cross of Christ, we may be surprised that the images of the Cross are to be covered in these days. However, when we recognize that we now venerate the Cross not so much as an emblem of victory (as in the Triumph of the Cross) but as an instrument of humiliation and suffering, we will soon understand the spiritual realities which are conveyed through the covering of the crosses.
In his passion, our Savior’s divinity was almost totally eclipsed, so great was his suffering. Likewise, even his humanity was obscured – so much so that he could say through his prophet: I am a worm and no man (Psalm 21:7). His face and whole body were so disfigured by the blows and scourges that our Jesus was scarcely recognizable! Thus, the wounds he endured hid both is divinity and his humanity. For this reason we veil the crosses in these final days of Lent – hiding our Savior under the sad purple cloth.
The Historical Interpretation
We will reproduce here the historical study offered by Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University (taken from Zenit):
“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.”
We would like to propose another possibility, one which need not conflict with any of those give above. It may be possible that the Church covers the images of the Cross during these days, for the same reason that she refrains from offering the Sacrifice of the Mass on Good Friday. Namely, in this time in which we mystically enter into the historical realities of Jesus’ final days, it is not fitting to have the image, sign or sacrament of the Cross presented to the faithful.
Indeed, St. Thomas tells us that “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) In an analogous way, it is fitting that, as the liturgical year recalls the events leading up to the Crucifixion, the Church should hide the effigies of the Cross from the vision of her faithful.