In the preconciliar Church, crucifixes, religious statues and images of the saints were covered with purple veils from the fifth Sunday of Lent through Good Friday, a period known as Passiontide. Even though the practice became optional at the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, many churches continue to observe the ancient custom.
The tradition alerts us to the fact that we have entered a time of more immediate preparation for Holy Week. It also removes much of the visual stimulation we normally experience at church to help us listen with greater attentiveness to the words of the Passion narratives read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Anticipation for the Easter season when the coverings will be removed also is intensified.
But there is an even deeper meaning to the practice. Veiling these holy objects reminds us in a strikingly visual manner that the faith we cherish was made possible only through the work of Christ in his suffering and death on the Cross. When the images, statues, and other religious articles are covered or removed entirely, we are confronted with the stark reality that, without the passion of the Christ, none of the subsequent flourishing of Christian values, culture, or tradition would have come into existence.
The glorious architecture erected in every soaring cathedral, the words written into flowing pages of great Catholic literature, the images painted on the canvasses of breathtaking works of religious art and the melodies sounded through the notes of sublime sacred music simply would never have come into being. We would have remained in our ignorance without the truth of God revealed in Christ and the Catholic intellectual tradition that followed. The moral goodness of saints like Mother Theresa and the enormous charity of Catholics in every age simply would vanish from the landscape of human history.
We have come to the end of our current message, Mass Communication. For the last five weeks, we have been exploring the various parts of our Sunday liturgy and what they say about our faith. In this last installment, we learn that the Concluding Rite of the Mass is not a simple dismissal. Rather, the blessing by the priest with the sign of the Cross, the words sending away the assembly, the actions reverencing the altar, and the recessional all echo the words of Christ to his disciples both before his death and after his Resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21; cf. 17:18).
Through the Word proclaimed and preached and the Sacrament shared and received, we are empowered to go out into the world to be Eucharist and bread for others. Indeed, our mission lies beyond the four walls of the church. Just as the apostles boldly made known the good news of Jesus and generations of disciples developed the Church out of the ashes of the Crucifixion as the greatest force for good in the world, we too are called to leave each Mass with the same solemn duty.
To the extent we ignore that charge, we tragically veil the beauty, goodness, and truth of our faith from a world in so much need of it.
Father Roger Gustafson