Uncovered: why we veil the cross this week

Some churches go all out to cover statues and crosses before Holy Week; others do hardly anything at all.

The New Theological Movement has an interesting explanation:

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.

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One response to “Uncovered: why we veil the cross this week”

  1. I have always found it interesting that in the Byzantine East, we begin the Great Fast with the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” which commemorates the restoration of icons to the Churches of Byzantium after a 117 year imperial (and sometimes episcopal) persecution. Liturgically, all of the removable icons in the church and those from people’s homes, are taken off the walls and processed around the church while hymns are sung and prayers are made at the four corners of the Church (usually this is done outside).

    This “Triumph” is more than just a celebration of the victory of the iconodules against the iconoclasts, of the truths of faith over the pernicious errors of heresy, but it also reminds us of the ultimate victory Christ will accomplish through the restoration of the “image and likeness of God” in us through the Paschal Mystery over and against Satan, the first true iconoclast – that is “the destroyer of images.” In this sense, the Triumph of Orthodoxy and Pascha (Feast of Resurrection) represent two revelatory and glorious “bookends” of the Great Fast. The “Triumph” is truly a foretaste of the ultimate victory of Christ, the New Adam, in the garden-tomb.

    In the Latin West, the covering of icons in anticipation of the glory of Easter, has a similar effect. The glory of the image is veiled, only to be revealed in the light of the Resurrection. The veil represents the world in shadow and darkness, unredeemed and as yet unconquered by grace. When the day of Illumination comes, the world is baptized into the saving death and resurrection of Christ, the Light of the World, and the veil of ignorance and doubt is lifted to reveal the luminous glory of God in all things. The Church once again renews her baptismal glory as creation redeemed, and the image and likeness of God that is in man fully restored. The Church’s interior, now cleansed and bathed with light, reveals the New Man.

    This is also the seed of hope the Church bears within her through the Spirit as we wait for the great Day of the Lord at the end of the age.

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