In our office chapel at Catholic Answers, we will begin the veiling of the crucifix and the principal chapel images this weekend (Passion Sunday). Why is this a tradition?
I’ll admit that I’m not always fond of this question when it comes to liturgical matters. To me the sacred liturgy exists in the realm of love, so the twentieth century’s vexing Why are you doing that?! often comes across like an interloper asking a husband why he is so persistent in kissing his wife when she comes into the house.
But it’s not a crazy question. I have a habit of answering it in roundabout poetical and homiletical ways (e.g. last Sunday’s homily, which isn’t the first time). The historical answer is very complicated, as this reproduced Encyclopedia entry and this Zenit quaestio suggest. Back in my Anglican days it was customary to follow the medieval English custom of veiling images and statues for the whole of Lent, not just Passiontide. That custom remains not just in large parts of the Episcopal Church, but in many of the great English Cathedrals, where the liturgical customaries never quite got the memo about the Reformation.
The older Missals all refer to the Fifth Sunday of Lent as the First Sunday of the Passion. Palm Sunday is the Second Sunday of the Passion. This is confusing, whether accidentally or on purpose I don’t know, though I suspect a few tenth-century monks are laughing. Passion Sunday does not give us the Passion story but, in the modern lectionary, the raising of Lazarus. In the older lectionary we hear about Jesus “hiding” himself from the religious authorities, which is where most interpreters seem to get the veiling idea. “Passiontide” also makes more sense when you realize that traditionally we get Matthew’s Passion on Palm Sunday, then Mark and Luke on Holy Tuesday and Wednesday, then of course John on Good Friday. (Does the three-year lectionary cycle actually give us “more scripture” in any meaningful way? I doubt it. But discuss it amongst yourselves.)
What I like—and this is purely theological opinion—about Passiontide is just this gradual character. We veil images, we cut out the Gloria patri at certain strategic points (not all); in the Divine Worship form we remove the Judica me psalm in the preparatory prayers (just like at Requiems … interesting). There’s an intentional stripping things back to the bare minimum, intensifying the removal of the Alleluia, organ music, etc. And so in a way you’re freed from distractions and forced to confront the thing itself. This all comes to a head, I think, on Good Friday with the unveiling of the Cross and the veneration of the crucified God.
A very holy Passiontide to you all.