“So they took stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” John 8:59
Today the Church celebrates the 5th sunday of Lent, also known as the 1st Sunday of the Passion, thus the start of what was once called Passiontide. This Sunday marks one week before Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. A common custom among Catholic churches is to veil all sacred images and crucifixes in the church, minus the Stations of the Cross, until the Easter Vigil. According to the Roman Missal, this optional practice is encouraged in places where the local conference of bishops has made allowances for it. Why do we veil these images? What purpose does it serve? How does it help us to grow in faith? These are a few questions that I hope to answer in the following paragraphs.
The history of this practice comes from two sources, the first being Sacred Scripture. As the line from the Gospel of John states, which I listed at the beginning of this post: “So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” 8:59 The traditional Gospel reading for this day, covered this story of how the hatred of Christ was increasing from the Jewish authorities. (This Gospel is now read in a shorter form on Thursday of the 5th week.) They accuse him of being a Samaritan, practicing witchcraft, blasphemy, etc. St. Augustine discusses the peculiarness of Christ, hiding himself. He has this to say of the situation: “He hides not Himself in a corner of the temple, as if afraid, or running into a cottage, or turning aside behind a wall or column: but by His Divine Power making Himself invisible, He passed through their midst.”
In order for Christ to be able to hide himself, Augustine says that through Christ’s divine power, he was able to actually become invisible and pass through them. The church, then also hides Christ from our eyes in some sense. We not only veil images of Christ, but we also veil images of his followers and friends. “For it is befitting that if the glory of the Master is hidden, then His faithful servants should likewise not appear.”
There is another reason for veiling which 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.”
At the Easter Vigil, there is a beautiful tradition of keeping the lights off in the church and the candles unlit during the readings, with only the light of the Paschal Candle (representing Christ) illuminating the church. Then, as the Gloria is sung the statues are uncovered, the candles lit, the church illumined and Christ is revealed as the victor over sin and death.
As we begin these final days of our Lenten journey, let us strive to focus on Christ’s passion, meditating on his pain, his anguish, and his sacrifice for us. Let us enter deeper into the mystery, let us seek to find Christ, and come to know him more. Until we meet anew in the saving waters of the Paschal season, may the rest of your Lent be fruitful!
Below is a great video, which explains why we veil images in a nutshell.