The Fifth Sunday of Lent begins a new division of the season and is called Passiontide, because all of the Readings from this point forward move us ever closer to Our Lord’s Passion, the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Just like Lent is announced visibly by the appearance of violet on the Altar, Passiontide is visibly announced by the veiling of crucifixes and any statues the church may have.
But if the point of Passiontide is that we are drawing ever closer to Jesus’ crucifixion, doesn’t it seem backwards to veil the image of His redemptive work?
Ordinarily, the answer would be “yes.” As St. John’s Gospel explains, the cross is where Jesus is glorified. As Christians, we delight in nothing but Christ the Crucified. We look on the Crucifix as the sign of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil. That’s why the Church has always preferred the crucifix over the empty cross. Apart from Jesus, the cross is simply an instrument of torture and execution. With Christ, it is the image of victory. We have eternal life because of the full cross and the empty tomb.
Prosper Louis Pascal Guéranger (1805-75), a French monk and priest, explains in his monumental fifteen-volume work, The Liturgical Year, we veil crucifixes during Passiontide because this time of the Church Year shows the humiliation to which our Savior subjected Himself during the last weeks of His life. It begins with the event recorded in the Gospel for Judica Sunday: at the end of His dispute with the Jews, they took up stones to murder Him, “but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (Jn 8:59). After this, Jesus’ humiliation is clearly seen. “Humiliation” refers to Jesus refraining from always and fully using His divine attributes. When we get to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, instead of removing Himself from what was coming or turning the wrath of God on His oppressors, He allowed sinful men to do their worst. He willingly refrained from using those attributes that could have spared Him temporal agony and death.
While the cross is still a sign of Jesus’ triumph, during the time of Passiontide, and especially during Holy Week, we are reminded of the humiliation and suffering of Jesus. The events of the crucifixion greatly obscure the almighty power that Jesus possesses as God. We could easily forget that He is fully God as Jesus permits Himself to be taken through illegal, sham trials, as He endures beatings, and as He carries His cross to Golgotha. The beatings He endures even obscure His humanity, as Jesus prays the words of Psalm 22, in which David puts on the lips of the Christ, “I am a worm and no man” (Ps 22:6). The wounds hid both His divinity and humanity. For this reason we veil the crucifixes under sad purple cloth.
But this hiding is only temporary. After the Gloria in Excelsis sings out again at the Great Vigil of Easter, the veils are removed. The cross is no longer a shame, but a trophy. On Easter we see Jesus on the cross and know that there He paid the price our sin demanded. The resurrection is proof that the Father accepted that sacrifice on behalf of the world. So, the cross is where victory was accomplished. And because we are Baptized into Jesus’ death, we are also Baptized into His resurrection and because of Easter we await our own resurrection on the Last Day.
This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?