This weekend we enter Passiontide, the final phase of the Lenten season, during which we traditionally veil statues and holy images in our churches until the Easter Vigil. I recently came across a poem by John Hart entitled, “Veiled Images at Passiontide,” which contemplates this ancient custom.
A purple kite
against the wall
with the wind still in it.
Above the side altars
with the brass candelabras
and unlit candles,
Purple ghosts. Purple ghosts
behind the votive trays
in the vestibule, too.
Only the sacristans
collecting for burning the excess
palms are left uncovered, for now.
Here stood the Little Flower;
here, Saint Jude – the wooden flame
atop his head still burning.
I would like to be a purple ghost
carried away by that kite.
some prayers don’t ask a thing;
Exiled king! The homesick,
and the burning.
a fluttering feeling of the wind.
The images of the “purple kite” and “purple ghosts” refer of course to the crucifix and saint statues, familiar things which are now rendered strange and unsettling. The sacristans collecting palms for burning are described as “left uncovered, for now,” because someday they will die and be hidden behind the dark veil that shrouds the dead. He refers to the saints whose images we used to see, which now are veiled in purple – images of the saints, but not the saints themselves. The saints themselves still live, of course, but are hidden behind the mortal veil that obscures our vision, but which cannot destroy what lies behind it. This confession of faith in eternal life fills the poet with longing to be “carried away by that kite” to join the “purple ghosts” behind the veil. It is the sacrifice of Christ that opens the way for us to enter His Kingdom, which, like the shrouded statues, is hidden yet mysteriously present to us even now. We have impressions of it, though don’t see it clearly – but those impressions make us think about those who are there, and we are filled with longing. We think of the One behind the purple kite, who leads us through the dark shroud to our true home. For if we consider life from another perspective, that of those who live behind the veil, we see that you and I are the ones living with Him beneath the shroud, for now, waiting for our turn to pass through.