The other day a parishioner asked why we veil crosses during Lent. I didn’t know, so I offered a pretty speculative explanation. The question has stuck with me and got me thinking about this tradition and what it suggests about Lent.
The custom at our parish is to veil all the crosses (excepting crucifixes) with plain, unbleached linen cloth for Ash Wednesday. On Good Friday, all the crucifixes are veiled as well. During the Good Friday liturgies, one cross is unveiled and venerated. All veils are removed before the Great Vigil of Easter.
My parish’s custom is apparently a variation of an ancient practice of veiling all crosses, images, relics, etc., during Lent (from either Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday in Lent).* Sources attest the custom of Lenten veiling by the tenth century in England (e.g., Aelfric of Eynesham, the Regularis Concordia), and similar customs existed in continental Europe from at least the ninth century. For example, Hildemar of Corbie (a monk who spent time in monasteries in both France and Italy) writes in his Commentary on the Rule of Benedict (ca. 845) that liturgical elements suggestive of “joy and happiness,” including “vestments and other delights,” should be removed during Lent. He understands this practice to be the rule of “the Holy Fathers,” i.e., to be ancient.
In many places there was also a veil hung so as to screen the altar and reredos from the nave of the church. Apparently, this veil was sometimes drawn aside during the reading of the Passion Gospel on Good Friday, at the mention of the veil of the Temple being torn in two (no doubt lending some powerful drama to the reading). Some places also possessed vestments made of a white or ashen cloth, comprising the so-called “Lenten array,” and the vestments and veils were occasionally adorned with symbols of the instruments of the Passion.
A separate, and apparently later, tradition is to veil with purple cloth all crosses and images of the Lord during Passiontide, that is, the last two weeks of Lent. This tradition is linked to the Gospel text for Passion Sunday, which speaks of Jesus hiding himself from the people (John 8:59).
What might we say about the theological significance of these customs?
The custom of Lenten veils (like the related practice of removing the Alleluia during Lent) most obviously underlines the penitential character of Lent. The earliest sources make a connection between the Lenten veils and the grief and penitence of Lent. The aforementioned Hildemar sees “things which pertain to joy and happiness” as inappropriate for the Lenten season. From this perspective, the Lenten veils function something like sackcloth and ashes, symbols of mourning and penance.
The Lenten veils also dramatize the separation of sin. A veil before the altar would be an especially stark symbol of the rupture in communion brought about by sin. For the altar is where the faithful are nourished in their union with the Lord Jesus, where the people of God eat together with God. A screen before the altar would make visible the breach of relationship wrought by sin and, thereby, call the faithful to contrition. A mute signal: “See what you’ve done!” In hiding the site of Holy Communion, the veil also obliquely draws attention to the goal of all penitence, namely, the restoration of fellowship with God and neighbor.
Lenten veiling, we might say further, suggests the shroud of sin, its deception and shame. The veil recalls the fig leaves of Adam and Eve; their fear to stand naked before their Creator; the first sign of the devastation of the goodness of creation. The veil sets before us the distorting deception of sin, and mirrors our capacity for self-deceit. The veil suggests our discomfort before the truth, especially before the judgement of the Cross. The veil silently declares “that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Or perhaps the veil conceals a glory we are not yet able to bear. Like the veil over the face of Moses come from speaking with the Lord. Like whatever kept the disciples on the road to Emmaus from recognizing the risen Jesus. Like the glass in which we now see darkly.
Why veil crosses during Lent? Perhaps to train us to perceive the glory of the Cross. Perhaps so we can learn to sing with joy, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the salvation of the world.” Perhaps because we come to see the Cross clearly through the light of the Resurrection.
* Many thanks to Zachary Guiliano for help with the historical details in these paragraphs.