Passiontide: The Veiling of Statues and the Crucifix
On this, the 5th Sunday of Lent, the beginning of Passiontide, the statues in the church are veiled in violet cloths and the other images of the Saints are removed. This is an ancient tradition of the Church stretching back 1,400 years to the seventh century. Originally statues were veiled and the images removed from the church at the very beginning of Lent but over time this custom was changed so that it is now done on this Sunday. For the next two weeks the Church fervently prepares herself to celebrate the Passion, death, and Resurrection of our Lord.
In Passiontide the Church falls into mourning as we anticipate the death of Christ. So the Church, too, from which much of our society draws its customs, veils the images of the glory of God to hide them away from our sight as we prepare for the true glory that is God to be taken from us on Good Friday.
Crucifixes, too, are veiled now. This began in the twelfth century when crucifixes more commonly showed the Triumph of the Cross rather than the agony of the death of Christ, and so this triumph was concealed until it would be unveiled again on Good Friday.
In Europe great veils were stretched across the entire length of the sanctuary so that the altar was completely hidden from view. It was a reminder that we by our sins are cut off from God and that it is only by the sacrifice of Christ that we are reconciled to Him.
The veils also have a beginning in the Gospel. On this the 5th Sunday of Lent the Gospel read for over one thousand years on this day was that of Gospel of Saint John in which our Lord says: ‘’If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all; my glory is conferred by the Father… Your father Abraham rejoiced to think that he would see my Day, he saw it and was glad… I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham ever was, I Am.”
At this, the Jews outraged to hear Christ speaking the same words as God to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am,” and so claiming to be God Himself, pick up rocks to stone him to death. But at this Saint John writes: “Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.” So just as our Lord hid Himself and left the Temple so the Church echoes that moment by hiding our Lord and the Saints removing them from this temple.
But the veils also remind us that when God became Man in Jesus Christ He did not cling to His heavenly glory but made Himself truly humble so that the glory of God in Jesus was concealed from the world.
Maybe the best way to understand why the Church veils statues of the Saints is to think of the sun and the moon. The light that shines from the moon is nothing more than a reflection of the light of the sun. If the sun were to stop shining the moon itself would give no light because it has no light of its own to give. In the same way the Saints only reflect the glory of God for they have no glory in themselves to shine. So as we anticipate now the death of Christ and the day when His glory will be hidden from us so we veil the statues of the Saints to remind us that their glory comes only from Christ Himself.
So at the great Easter Vigil these statutes will be unveiled and the images of the Saints brought back into the church for then as the single light burning from the Paschal Candle enters the darkened Church so we will behold the return of the Glory of God Himself.