Why do we veil Crucifixes and Statues during Lent?

Why do we veil crucifixes and statues on the 5th Sunday of Lent?

The rubrics in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal states:

“… the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil (Fifth Sunday of Lent).”

The custom of veiling the images during the last two weeks of Lent hails from the Middle Ages, and the veils are usually made of lightweight purple cloth without any decoration. As early as in the ninth century Germany the tradition of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent known as the “Hungertuch” or ‘hunger cloth’, hid the altar from the view of the people until the reading of the Passion on Wednesday of Holy Week at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.” The veil in the temple of Jerusalem separated the Holy of Holies from the main body of the temple.

Some scholars say the custom was a remnant of the ancient practice of ritually expelling public penitents from the church at the beginning of Lent. After the  custom of public penance fell into disuse and the entire congregation was symbolically incorporated into the order of penitents through the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, it was no longer possible to expel them from the church and so instead the altar, or “Holy of Holies”, was shielded from view until they were reconciled with God at Easter.

Later on in the Middle Ages the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent. The obligatory custom of limiting this veiling to the last two weeks of Lent, appears in the Ceremonial of Bishops in the seventeenth century. The great Benedictine liturgist, Dom Prosper Gueranger of the nineteenth-century, gives a mystical interpretation of the veiling, based on the Gospel of St John chapter 8, which was formerly read on 5th Sunday of Lent.

“Jesus hid himself from the Jews who wanted to stone him (cf. Jn 8:59), so by the symbol of the veil, he is now hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of his passion. Thus if the Master himself is covered, so should be his servants. As such, the statues of the saints are covered too.”

In the book, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year by Monsignor Peter J. Elliot, he states:

“The custom of veiling crosses and images in these last two weeks of Lent 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 Redemption.”

The covering of Crucifixes and Statues with a veil or ‘hunger cloth’ is a commendable way of helping us prepare for Our Lord’s Passover in the last two weeks of Lent.

First of all, the veiling alerts the on looker of the special liturgical time that we have entered. When one walks into church, one is struck by noticing that everything familiar is covered, immediately we notice that something is different. These last two weeks of Lent are meant to be a time of immediate preparation and ‘hunger’ for the Sacred Triduum the celebration of our redemption. These veils are a forceful reminder for us to be eager and ‘hunger’ for its fulfilment in our celebration.

Secondly, the veils help us focus our senses on the celebration of this special time of the Liturgical year. When we experience the liturgical symbolism of these days and listen to the Passion narrative, our minds are directed to focus on the striking words from the Gospel events and unfolding of the liturgical action that will fulfil the insatiable ‘hunger’ of our souls.

Thirdly, the Church uses veils to produce a heightened sense of anticipation for Paschal Mystery about to be celebrated . This is further actualized when you participate in the liturgy during this special time and see the veils each day. They are hiding some very beautiful images. Herein lies the whole point: the veils are not meant to be there forever, it is unnatural for beauty to be covered. We desire, we ‘hunger’ for this beauty to be unveiled.

That ‘hunger’ must be for the unveiling of the true beauty of our Redemption and Salvation brought about by the Paschal Mystery. The Passion death and Resurrection of Jesus restores us and indeed all of humanity to beauty of being and living in God’s grace- the deepest longing, desire and ‘hunger’ of our souls.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

Written by Fr Ignatius Yeo, Parish Priest