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The veiling and covering of statues during the last part of Lent is something that strikes many people the first time that they see it. It is something that definitely got my attention as well when I first saw this liturgical practice. Lately many people have been asking me about the practice, such as where did it originate? Is it a traditional practice? What is the significance? And many other things.
It is my understanding that the Bishops’ Conference decides whether this practice will be used as the norm or not. Here in the United States it is my understanding that it is not usually done. Nevertheless there are many religious orders and institutions such as the Norbertine Fathers, and many others who are exempt from the oversight from their local bishop and who report directly to Rome. For this reason they can freely do this practice regardless of the decision of a particular bishop or conference of bishops.
The origins, significance and practice of veiling and covering statues and crosses
This practice is said to have German origins. The Hungertuch (hunger cloth) hid the altar entirely from the faithful. This practice can thus be said to have originated in the Early Church. This practice was however normalized around the Middle Ages in which it was not only the Cross but also various other things such as the statues of saints, relics icons which were veiled as well.
In the Catholic Source Book Peter Klein states that this practice originally starts on the fifth Sunday of Lent.
“It has long been the tradition in the Church to cover all crucifixes, statues, and icons in purple cloth from two Sundays before Easter to Good Friday. Traditionally, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, one week before Palm Sunday, was called Passion Sunday or Judica Sunday after the first word of the Introit: “Judge me, O Lord…” (see Psalm 43). The veiling referred to the closing words of the Sunday’s Gospel, “They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). The Lenten veil expressed the sorrow of the Church at this time.1
For this reason although it is not entirely explicit in the Novus Ordo (The Ordinary Form) the readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent in the Traditional Latin Mass (Extraordinary Form) specifically apply to the start in which this practice is celebrated. The Gospel as Peter Klein states in the above mentioned book is about the Passion of Christ in which Jesus is being accused by the Pharisees of being possessed by the devil. After Jesus makes it clear that he is the Son of God by saying that he knows the Father and that he glorifies the Father and the Father glorifies the Son (Jesus Christ) the Jews then begin to stone Him and so Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Similarly the Introit (entrance) during the Fifth Sunday of Lent in the Traditional Latin Mass is Psalm 42 (43) called the Judica me which perfectly fits in with the Gospel reading.
Do me justice, O God, and fight against a faithless people; from the deceitful and impious man rescue me. For You, O God, are my strength. Send forth Your light and Your truth; they shall lead me on and bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling place. Do me justice, O God .
Furthermore for this reason the practice of veiling and covering the Cross and the various other things which are covered, is that it symbolizes the Church now officially mourning for Our Lord. Monsignor Elliot states “ The custom of veiling crosses and images has much to commend in terms of religious psychology, because it helps us to concentrate on the great essentials of Christ’s work of Redemption.” 2
On Holy Thursday “Maundy Thursday” the veil on the Cross is changed from purple to white. It is then completely removed after the Solemn afternoon liturgy of Good Friday.
- Peter Klein “The Catholic Source book” Chapter on Lent
- Quoted in “Covering of Crosses and Images in Lent”