There’s an old saying that “the early bird catches the worm.” In some cases, however, the early bird is just early. I thought of that last weekend when I realized too late that I had our volunteers veil the images in our churches too early. My apologizes for putting a damper on your Laetare Sunday!
Traditionally, the proper time to cover the images in our churches is what’s called “Passiontide.” This refers to the week-long period leading up to Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year. This tradition of veiling images is related to the gospel passage that, prior to the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, the priest would have read at this weekend’s Masses. It’s the passage from Chapter 8 of the Gospel of St. John in which we hear Christ say to the Jewish leaders who are challenging Him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” They understood that Jesus was alluding to the name of the Lord as it was revealed to Moses in the burning bush: “I am.” Considering this to be blasphemy, they “took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the Temple” (Jn 8:58-9). Tragically, while Moses was able to recognize the Lord veiled by the burning bush, the hardened hearts of Our Lord’s contemporaries prevented them from recognizing the the Presence of God revealed in the flesh, and so He withdrew further from their sight.
As we move deeper into Lent, we consider with greater intensity the world’s rejection of Christ Jesus, including those times when we reject Him personally by our sins. The practice of veiling the holy images of Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints is a way for us to experience in our senses the spiritual and moral blindness that, like the religious persecutors of Christ in the gospels, all of us suffer with to some extent. The veils are violet, the color of mourning and of penance, which reminds us of the sorrow we feel over the sufferings of Christ for our sake, as well as the sacrifices we make as a way of participating in Our Lord’s atonement for our sins. Although dramatic, the veiling of images is not our first experience of Lenten deprivation. Most of us have given something up for Lent as a way to discipline our desires and become more spiritually focused. In our liturgies since the beginning of Lent we have not sung the “Gloria” or spoken/sung the “A-word” before the proclamation of the gospel. There have been no flowers in the sanctuary. Looking ahead, on Holy Thursday we will not ring the bells at Communion. That same night, the altars in every church will be stripped, the tabernacles emptied, and there will be no Masses said at all on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday morning there will be silence in the churches, as we meditate on Christ lifeless in His tomb.
By “hiding” all of these holy things from our senses, the Church invites us to discover the deep longing that exists in our souls for Jesus, that perhaps we only notice by their absence. It is a fitting way to prepare our hearts for the solemn celebrations of Holy Week, and to welcome Our Lord as He comes to us veiled under the appearance of bread and wine.