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Veiled Images, Veiled God
Reflection/Commentary: Passiontide, the Veiling of Images, and the Passion
Starting on Passiontide, the fifth Sunday of Lent, churches will veil both crucifixes and statues of the saints, typically covering them with violet cloth until Holy Saturday. Liturgists have given several possible purposes for the practice. The Very Reverend Dom Guéranger suggested several reasons; one, that it is connected to the Gospel of the day from the eighth chapter of St. John: “They took up stones therefore to cast at him. But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). If the master had to humiliate Himself, hiding His Glory, so ought the images of his servants, the saints, be hidden.
Whatever the reason, the practice is a sound and useful one, arresting us by the suddenness of the change. Catholics have long loved statues and religious imagery; to have them suddenly hidden, covered for two weeks as we enter into the mystery of Christ’s suffering, grips the imagination, jolting us as we prepare for the darkest time of the Church year and Church history, the Hour of Our Lord’s Passion and the power of darkness.
Our Lord’s earthly ministry was always building toward that Hour. Venerable Bishop Sheen remarked in his Life of Christ that, when Scripture uses the term “Hour,” it refers to Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion. Hence, He told His mother at Cana that His Hour had not yet come. Later, His enemies tried to lay hands on Him and arrest Him, but “no man laid hands on him, because his Hour was not yet come” (John 7:30). Now, His Hour finally has come, the Hour for which He came into the World. Bishop Sheen wrote: “every other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. He came into it to die.”
Now that Hour was here, the Hour of darkness. Our Lord knew it Himself. Betrayed by one of His own, who led a mob to arrest Him, He chastised that mob, chiding them for coming for Him only by night. “Are ye come out,” He asked, “as it were against a thief, with swords and clubs? When I was daily with you in the temple, you did not stretch forth your hands against me, but this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:52-53). Now sinful men would apprehend the sinless God. They who were so concerned with ritual cleanliness would lay unclean hands on the spotless Victim, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Pilate, the enlightened pagan who rejected and ridiculed even the idea of truth, would condemn Truth Himself to a criminal’s death.
It was the Hour for darkness, and such was the horror of that Hour that the Sun itself veiled its face, refusing to shed light and hiding its gaze from the sight. And there is a mystery here from which men well might turn away. Chesterton once commented that Christianity alone of all the world’s creeds “added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. … When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God”: My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?
Yet, if God seemed to have abandoned God, Our Lord would not abandon His mission. He would not come down from the cross, regardless of the taunts of the bystanders, until His task was done. And into the hands of the God who seemed veiled from Him, He at last commended His spirit.
And yet, if evil, for a moment, looked triumphant, just a few hours beyond the apparent disaster of the Cross lay Easter Sunday. Just two short weeks past the veiling of images in our Churches lies the triumph of Easter.
The veiled images in Church may remind us of times in our lives when God’s face feels veiled from us, when we may feel like Our Lord on the cross. Our Lord, for a time, did not experience the consolation of His Divinity; we, at times, may not feel the consolation of God’s presence. Yet, like Christ on the Cross, we too are to remain at our tasks, refusing to come down from our own crosses, whatever they be, until our task is done and we can say: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
Evil has its hour, but God will have His Day, the Day of the Lord, which we await as we await Easter and the unveiling of the images: watchfully, soberly, with lamps trimmed and well-oiled, and souls prepared by fasting, prayers, and penance. Then may St. Paul’s words be said of us: “you are children of the light and children of the day… and not of darkness” (1 Thess 5:2, 5).