Saturday, March 20, 2010

Passiontide Veiling of Images

For the final two weeks of Lent, an old ecclesiastical custom has it that the crucifixes, as well as other statues and images, are veiled with violet veils. I have seen churches where the veils are black. In either case, the effect is to hide, or cover, the holy images with veils of somber penitence. (The exception to this dark veiling is on Maundy Thursday for the Mass of the Institution of the Lord's Supper, for which the crucifix on the altar is properly veiled in white.)

But what is the reason for this veiling of images in Passiontide? It serves several purposes. In former times it was more common in churches to see images and crosses adorned with precious and costly jewels and metals. (Too often today, by contrast, Christians tend to be more eager to furnish their own homes with the highest quality items than to worship our Savior by furnishing His churches with the best and highest quality materials. On this count we can take a lesson from our fathers in the faith, who often gave all they had for the beauty and good of the church.) And so during the Season of the Passion of our Lord it became necessary to subdue the effect of these decorations by covering them.

This custom grew, or evolved, so that the veiling was in the course of time applied to all images and crucifixes, even if only made of wood. And so beyond the historical, utilitarian reason for the veiling of images, the Church practices this old custom still today because its symbolic significance itself becomes an act of devotion.

And what is that symbolism? The holy season of the Passion of Christ is a time when the liturgy focuses most intensely, as the name of this season itself tells us, on the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the cross is that in which we glory. It is our sign of victory. It is the place from which the river of life flows for us. These are important truths, which we do well to always meditate upon and ponder. Yet we look quite particularly, in Passiontide, at the cost of our Salvation, namely, the profound suffering and painful death which Christ suffered on that cross. And when a loving spouse grieves the death of her husband, she behaves in a way consonant with that grief. She is in mourning. So, for example, she covers her head, her glory, in black. (Here I might add that many a Christian woman still covers her head in black when in the church, throughout the year, not, to be sure, out of mourning per se, yet partially as her own devotion to her Lord, present in His Word and Sacraments, Who gave His life for her.) Likewise the Church, the Bride of Christ, has adopted the custom in this world of covering some of the outward glory of her appointments when the time is most apropos for mourning the death of her Lord.

To be sure, she mourns this death even as she knows it is the source of her life. These truths and sentiments do not cancel each other out. They inform each other, and help give both meaning. At various times the Church focuses more intently upon this or that facet of the mystery of our salvation. So just as we express our grief liturgically during the fortnight of Passiontide, grief over the death of the Lover of our souls, and grief over our sins which He bore in that suffering, and yet do not thereby deny the joy of our victory in Christ, likewise during the Paschal octave we focus quite intently upon the joy of the resurrection, while in no way denying the suffering and death of Christ. In fact, let us always bear in mind that Christ's death and resurrection are twin aspects of the one Paschal mystery. The Church's faith and worship is always centered around this twin mystery. Consider, for example, the beautiful significance of the fact that when the veils are taken away, and the Church enters into the joyful celebration of the Easter Season, it is precisely the crucifix which is once again displayed for us in all its detail.

So the Church begins to turn more intently toward the cross as Passiontide commences, the cross which both hides and reveals the glory and power of God. She thus turns intently toward the cross on Calvary precisely as we see Christ Himself turning more intently toward His journey to the cross outside of Jerusalem. Significantly the Gospel on Iudica Sunday, which begins the Passion season, tells us that Christ seeks not His own glory. He walks to the cross knowing that in honoring His Father, He is glorified, and thereby gives eternal life to all who are faithful to His Word, the Word of the Cross. And after He speaks His Word to those who cannot see Him for what and who He is, we are told that He hid Himself, and went out of the temple. So the veiling, which begins on this day, fits most significantly with this Gospel, for the image of Christ, along with images of His holy ones, whose lives are really icons of Christ, are hid from our outward view, and He is seemingly taken out of His temple, as it were.

So let us accompany the veiling of images this Passiontide with prayer and devotion, with intense focus upon Christ's death on the Cross, the glory of which is subdued for a time. And in two weeks we will see a striking example of how the liturgical year has a heart that beats with a lively rhythm. For this contrast between Passiontide and Paschaltide is an outward expression of the rhythm of the Church's faith and life, a contrast also shown by the omission of the Gloria Patri and Alleluia which converts after Lent into triple Alleluias and once again sprinkling the Gloria Patri on all our psalms and canticles. May your devotion and prayer, both through the darkness of Passiontide and through the overt joy of Pascha, each in its own way be filled with grace and life, in Christ our Lord.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

Wonderful reading. I am surprised to learn that the custom of veiling images is to begin on Judica and not Quadragesima (or Septuagesima). Does this apply for congregations using the the three-year lectionary as well (in which case the Gospel readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, years B and C do not reference Jesus' glory, or at least are not the same as the Judica Gospel reading)? Or should congregations using the three-year lectionary veil images beginning at some other time? or not at all?

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Jonathan:

These differences you observe between the traditional and modern uses of the liturgy, and the liturgical questions they raise, as in this case, are problems that have no definitive solution.

If a pastor wishes to be traditional regarding the veiling, but not traditional regarding the pericopal system he uses, he can do that, but it will make slightly less sense, it will all cohere together in a less than fully perfect way.

The best solution, in my view, is not to alter the veiling tradition to somehow fit the readings, but to reform his lectional practices, so that all of his practices together make more sense.