The Lenten Veil

High Altar, Church of the Incarnation, Dallas (Episcopal)
(photo credit: Chris Yoder)

The veiling of crosses and images is a Western practice that I find myself thinking more and more about the longer I am a priest. When I came into Anglicanism more than 20 years ago, religious ritual was new and I couldn’t get enough of it. Especially now that I teach both liturgical history and practical liturgics for those training for the priesthood, I’ve moved to beginning the practical course by thinking through the principles that guide ceremonial actions (though I won’t bore you with them here).

The veiling of crosses is a practice that I have come to find more and more difficult to situate well within the general principles that seem to guide the Western approach. There are a numbers of Western traditions, and probably many more. Two main ones seem to influence Anglicans in this country.

The first is the one that Catholic readers of PrayTell are most familiar with: the veiling of crosses and images (except those that are of an architectural character) with opaque purple cloth beginning today, Passion Sunday, when the current Missal directs the use of the first Passion preface. As described in Peter Eliot’s Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, this practice is not obligatory, through bishop’s are free to make it so in their diocese and all pastors are free to engage in the custom. Images for the Stations and stained glass windows are not veiled. Crosses are unveiled on Good Friday, and then veiled again until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil. It appears that this practice is a later development and is tied to the Gospel for Passion Sunday in the older, one-year lectionary which speaks of Jesus hiding himself from the people when they went to stone him (John 8:59).

The high altar at Westminster in Lenten array dating from the 1920s and 30s.  The frontal and dossal, decorated with ox blood red stencilling, were first introduced in 1921. The blue stencilled hangings covering the rest of the altar screen were added in 1935.  Both were designed by Sir Walter Tapper, Surveyor of the Fabric. 

An English custom, commended by Percy Dearmer in his (in)famous The Parson’s Handbook, followed the so-called Sarum practice. Here, veiling begins on Ash Wednesday (see more here). The veiling is done in unbleached linen, rather than purple cloth. The same items are veiled, but the English practice adds to this the veiling of the raredos in the same unbleached linen, and the use of the same material for the altar frontal.

Fisher Parish Church, Lenten array

Further, unlike the Latin practice, images of the passion (such as the instruments used) are applied in blood red and often the veil that covered the raredos is applied with an image of the Crucified. If there is a rood screen, the Rood is also veiled. In some places, a veil was also added that shielded the entire sanctuary. Further, a different processional cross was used: made of wood, painted red, and without an image of the Crucified, and used without a veil.

The only change at Passiontide was that the vestments in Lenten array (sometimes with black or red orphreys) were replaced with a dark red (sometimes called oxblood), a color quite different from the festal red of Pentecost (see pages 511-515 in the Handbook’s 6th ed. from 1907).

All this raises a number of different kinds of questions and thoughts.

First, the mixing of these two approaches seems entirely undesirable. Both have a somewhat different logic to them. It’s a bit like following the current Latin liturgical color scheme, but substituting red (the Sarum color) for green in Ordinary time, just for kicks. The issue is more about picking and choosing from various streams based on the whims of clergy (which are usually both whimsical and idiosyncratic).

Second, the use of Eastern-style icons has become more and more common in Catholic and Anglican churches. Veiling them seems extremely odd to me, primarily because the Eastern approach to icons is not the same as the Western approach to images. Instead, it seems better to remove icons that can be removed and not veiling those that cannot. Similarly, veiling relics seems quite odd and should not be encouraged.

Third, what is most commendable as a practice now? The Gospel from the end of John 8 is not read any longer in the current Roman lectionary, the Eucharistic lectionary published in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, nor in the Revised Common Lectionary. In fact, there is little of Passiontide that remains after the reforms that followed Vatican II. Does it make sense to tie veiling to Passiontide?

Fourth, the practice of using veils that are see-through also strikes me as quite odd. I still recall the bracing image from my church history professor at Duke Divinity School reminding us that Jesus did not, as the Docetists proposed, “put on his humanity like negligee, his divinity shining clearly through.” Such veiling seems more like a half-gesture, and one not to be commended. Further, the “dance of the seven veils” (as I heard it described by one priest), where the colors of the veils changes multiple times (e.g. start with purple on Ash Wednesday; move to red on Palm Sunday, and then to black on Good Friday) seems like a tremendous burden on the Altar Guild, and also to reduce religious and ritual symbolism to simplistic decorations.

Similarly, draping fabric on crosses, and not actually veiling them, also seems undesirable; it appears more like a decoration and not like veiling at all.

Fifth, what do we make of the meaning or the spiritual intent of the practice? My friend, Chris Yoder, wrote about this a few year’s back over at Covenant. Writing of the practice’s origin, he explains:

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.

Fr. Yoder proposes a couple of possible directions:

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.

This makes sense to me, except when it comes to crosses, especially crucifixes. While, of course, there is a proper sense in which a crucifix should lead us to joy, as it is the depiction of the Lord in his glory, lifted up, triumphing over death, hell, and Satan, even as he appears to be defeated. But the crucifix is not primarily an image of joy. The stripping away of other images has a certain logic to it, precisely in order that we may turn out gaze directly on Jesus in our Lenten journey, and that he might lead us to the Triduum and, through the grave and gave of his death, to our joyful resurrection. To strip ourselves of images and persons other than Christ during this period (no matter how good and holy) in order to train our gaze upon him, and him alone, is a meaning that one can explain straightforwardly to the average Christian.

Yoder proposes a few other meanings, some of which are tied closely to the English practice of a veil set before the entire altar and sanctuary:

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.

These are all quite beautiful and spiritual fruitful. But I also wonder if they are the kinds of meaning which requires too much explanation. I am definitely not in favor of dumbing liturgical language and symbolism down. But these meanings feel closer to the allegorical interpretation of the Mass as a mystical depiction of the chronology of Christ’s life. This may be a spiritually edifying interpretation of the Mass, but it cannot be the meaning or purpose of it. As Schememann argued in his famous article on symbolism, such an interpretation bears no relationship to either the text or the ordo of the Mass and it means that even the knowledgable and sophistical person must have the real, secret meaning explained to them.

As Baumstark pointed out about how soft places in the liturgy are magnets for accretions, I think that central days in the liturgical year can also attract similar accretions. These are often not changes to older practices (as such days are often resistant to being edited and reformed), but the adding of new practices. Think, for instance, of the unfortunate practice of choirs and clerics wearing only cassocks on Good Friday (this happens in Anglican churches, I know; does it occur in Catholic churches also?). It seems that there are many aspects of veiling that are these kinds of accretions and need to be reconsidered.

I’m honestly not sure what the best answer is. But here are a few principles that are worth considering:

  • Visual simplicity within the Church is a good for which to strive. Thus, overly shiny purple veils should be avoided; messy and precious veiling should also be avoided; simpler candlesticks and a starker image of the Crucified can help to achieve this; flowers should not be used at the altar; it seems fitting that images of Our Lady and the Saints be veiled for at least part of Lent: whether for the whole season or just Passiontide. The later practice could be viewed and deepening our Lenten focus as we come to the final fortnight before Easter.
  • Lenten veiling should direct worshipers to Jesus and to the cross. One way to achieve this is to veil all crosses except the central altar cross of the church, thus directing our gaze with a particular intensity toward the Author and Perfector of our faith.

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