Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
My husband and I were staying in the Mountain Home, Arkansas area to celebrate our wedding anniversary and attended Mass at the Church of St. Peter the Fisherman for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. We attended Mass during Advent last year, so it seems we only come here during penitential seasons! We entered the church just as the congregation finished praying the Holy Rosary and noticed that the Crucifix above the Altar was veiled in purple cloth, the Tabernacle was veiled in purple, and also the statues on either side of the sanctuary. And when the servers, the deacon, and the priest processed the crucifix one of the servers carried aloft on a staff was wrapped in purple.
Although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not required parishes to veil statues, crosses, crucifixes, and other images, the practice “may be observed” starting on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. The crucifixes and crosses are covered until after the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday—when a cross or crucifix is unveiled and venerated—but the other images are covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Veiling the statues during the last week of Lent and Holy Week brings up two questions: why do we have images of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the saints in our churches? And why do cover them up at this time of the Liturgical Year?
The Communion of Saints in Glass and Stone
We do not worship the statues of Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph and the saints: they are not idols. In the eighth and ninth centuries there was a great debate over the use of icons in the Eastern Church. Iconoclasts destroyed images while saints like John of Damascus defended their use. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote to a bishop in the East who had destroyed all the images in his diocese, remonstrating with him:
Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book. (Ep. ix, 105)
The Western Church was not involved in this dispute, but during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, some Reformers—although not Martin Luther—also thought the presence of images in Catholic churches was idolatrous, and destroyed many beautiful images.
The Council of Trent reinforced the tradition of images in our churches and our homes and also repeated the distinction between Jesus and Mary and the saints: we worship and adore Jesus; we venerate and honor Mary and the saints. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the use of images is explained thus: “the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart's memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.” (Paragraph 1162)
Veiling the Statues during Passiontide
Although the term Passiontide is not used for the last full week of Lent and Holy Week in the current Roman calendar, the readings and prayers for Mass and the Divine Office emphasize that Jesus is approaching His Passion and Death. He is confronting His enemies in the Temple every day, proclaiming His unity with the Father and they seem angrier with Him every day.
Veiling the images in our churches is most directly connected with the Gospel for Passion Sunday in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite. At the end of that Gospel (John 8:46-59), the Jews are angry enough to stone Jesus, but He “hid and went out of the temple area”. As Jesus hid, so images of Him are veiled, and if His images are veiled, so are those of Mary and the saints, for they are servants not greater than the master. This passage (John 8:51-59) occurs in the Gospel for Thursday, April 6 this year.
Even without that Gospel on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, however, it’s clear that the Church deepens its penitential efforts as we prepare to remember Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection; the reception of the Elect at the Easter Vigil, and the renewal of our Baptismal promises. The statues are hidden just as Jesus’s Divinity was hidden while He was Incarnate on earth; the altar is stripped just as Jesus was stripped; the tabernacle is empty and the sanctuary candle extinguished just as Jesus seemed to have been vanquished by death: we are all veiled in the Paschal Mystery.