Why do Catholics cover images during Lent?

by Michael Foley, associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University. Dr. Foley is chairman of the St. Gregory Society, a group supporting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass at St. Peter Catholic Student Center.

Lift high the Cross (but cover it up?)

Statues and crucifixes veiled on Holy Thursday at St. Peter Catholic Student Center.

The last two weeks in the traditional season of Lent are called Passiontide, when the Church shifts her focus from Christ in the desert (the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent) to Christ during the Passion. Given this heightened emphasis, it may seem strange and even counterproductive to veil crucifixes and other images of Christ and the Saints in the church, but this is precisely what we do.           

The historic reason for the custom

There’s a historic reason for the custom. The concluding words of the Gospel on Passion Sunday are: “Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple” (John 8:59).The wording is curious. Jesus did not leave the Temple and then hide; He hid Himself and then left the Temple. For a while, then, Jesus was in the Temple, hidden. In imitation of this moment, after the deacon sang this verse the images in the papal chapel in the Vatican were shrouded in cloth. These images included not only those of Christ but of His Saints, who are also His “icons” or images.           

The Epistle reading of the day dovetails nicely with this custom as well, for it describes Christ as the High Priest going into the Holy of Holies (Heb. 9:11-15). The sacred author is referring to Christ’s entrance into Heaven, but his depiction has us picturing Christ entering into the hidden part of Solomon’s Temple, the part hidden by a veil. The themes of temporarily hiding and doing things in secret are also reinforced in the Gospels of Passion Monday and Passion Tuesday, respectively.           

A different hiding, a different garden

Christ’s hiding Himself can be seen as an inversion of Adam and Eve’s behavior. Whereas the First Couple hid themselves from shame, Christ hides Himself in order to die at the right moment, undoing the sin of Adam. And when He does reveal Himself in order to die for our sins, He clothes Himself, so to speak, with our sins in order to atone for them.           

Attention through absence

And it’s oddly appropriate that we should not be able to look upon a crucifix during Passiontide. Catholicism ingeniously teaches both through presence and through absence. Usually, the Church employs physical signs to convey invisible realities; but sometimes, she temporarily withdraws something as a way of arresting our attention and heightening our awareness of what is missing.

On Friday, for example, the absence of the flesh of an animal whose blood was shed for us paradoxically reminds us of the day in which the Blood of the God-man was shed for us. The suppression of the Alleluia during Septuagesima and Lent effectively demonstrates that we are in exile from our true Home, where the angels sing Alleluia without ceasing.

Prohibiting the sacrifice of the altar on Good Friday draws us in an inverted way to the sacrifice of the cross. And veiling sacred images in church during Passiontide—when we would most expect to gaze upon a crucifix—heightens our awe of Christ’s Passion. 

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