|ROME, 8 MARCH 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Why are crosses and images covered during the last weeks of Lent?
D.K., Oakland, California
A: First of all, I would first like to recommend Monsignor Peter
Elliott's excellent guide "Celebrations of the Liturgical Year"
published by Ignatius Press in 2002. It is a very useful resource for
all those involved in the practical aspects of liturgical planning.
The duration of such veiling varies from place to place. The custom in
many places is to veil from before first vespers or the vigil Mass of
the Fifth Sunday of Lent while others limit this veiling from after the
Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.
In some places images and statues are actually removed from the church
and not simply veiled, especially after Holy Thursday.
Crosses are unveiled after the Good Friday ceremonies. All other images
are unveiled shortly before the Mass of the Easter Vigil.
Neither the Stations of the Cross nor stained glass windows are ever
The bishops' conference may decide if the veiling during this period
should be obligatory within its territory.
The veils are usually made of lightweight purple cloth without any
The custom of veiling the images during the last two weeks of Lent hails
from the former liturgical calendar in which the Passion was read on the
Fifth Sunday of Lent (hence called "Passion Sunday") as well as on Palm
Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, and Good Friday.
For this reason the period following the Fifth Sunday of Lent was called
Passiontide. A remnant of this custom is the obligatory use of the first
Preface of the Lord's Passion during the Fifth Week of Lent.
As Monsignor Elliott remarks, "The custom of veiling crosses and images
... has much to commend it in terms of religious psychology, because it
helps us to concentrate on the great essentials of Christ's work of
Although this is true, the historical origin of this practice lies
elsewhere. 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
After the Second Vatican Council there were moves to abolish all veiling
of images, but the practice survived, although in a mitigated form.
* * *
Follow-up: Covering Crosses and Images [03-22-2005]
According to Horace, "Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus." Sometimes even
excellent Homer nods. Although the only thing I share with the author of
the Trojan epic is a penchant toward nodding, I certainly drooped in my
piece on veiling statues during Lent (see March 8).
In that column I affirmed: "The custom of veiling the images during the
last two weeks of Lent hails from the former liturgical calendar in
which the Passion was read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (hence called
In this, as pointed out by several readers, I erred. In fact the Passion
was not read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, even though the Sunday was
called Passion Sunday and the period that followed it Passiontide.
The Gospel for this Sunday was John 8:46-59, the discussion between
Jesus and the Jewish authorities which ended in a frustrated attempt to
stone him. This reading is now found, in a slightly briefer version, on
Thursday of the fifth week of Lent.
In the former liturgy, the daily Gospel readings following Passion
Sunday were all taken from John and evoke the increasing tension between
Jesus and the authorities that eventually lead up to Good Friday.
The present cycle of readings for the latter part of Lent evokes the
same basic theme although the texts
also taken from St. John
are organized in a different manner.
On the question of veiling statues and crucifixes, a Virginia reader
asks: "Our parish covered all images, including the crucifix on the
altar, on Ash Wednesday. Apparently they will be unveiled on Saturday,
March 26, 2005, at the Easter Vigil. Also, all of the holy water was
removed from our parish as of Ash Wednesday."
Veiling during all of Lent may have been a common practice in the Middle
Ages, but it has been restricted to Passiontide for several centuries.
Hence, the practice our reader described is incorrect. The altar or
processional cross is not veiled and, indeed, its use is implied in the
rubrics for the solemn Masses of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.
As mentioned in the previous column, the crosses are unveiled after the
Good Friday ceremonies while other images are unveiled, with no ceremony
whatsoever, before the Easter Vigil
not at the celebration itself.
Regarding the removal of holy water, we repeat the response given on
March 23, 2004:
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments recently
responded to a similar question (3/14/03: Prot. N. 569/00/L) giving a
clear answer: "This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of
Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in
particular, for two reasons:
"1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this
innovation, which in addition to being 'praeter legem' is contrary to a
balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a
season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and
baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.
"2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves
frequently of the sacraments is to be understood to apply also to the
season of Lent. The 'fast' and 'abstinence' which the faithful embrace
in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or
sacramentals of the Church.
"The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on
the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the
water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the
Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday)."