Veiling Images in the Church
I wanted this week to offer a reflection on the veiling of our crucifixes and images. Veiling and covering sacred things can have a number of meanings. In general, there are two broad reasons why we cover things: we cover things that are sacred, and we cover things for penance. First of all, consider the pious custom of women veiling their heads when they enter a church or sacred place. This practice is tied to the awesome dignity of woman and her creative power. Women bear within themselves similarities to God that men do not have. Her nature is exalted in the order of creation because she can bear and nurture human life and give from her own person nourishment for her children. This has always been viewed by Christianity as a Godlike aspect to femininity, the God who brings forth life, nurtures it, and nourishes it. When, therefore, the Christian woman comes before the Lord in the church, she can choose to express her inward humility and piety before her Lord who has endowed her with such a special gift by exteriorly covering her head, which is an image of the whole person. This is an example of veiling something that is sacred.
Another example of veiling things that are sacred is the optional use of the chalice veil and burse. The celebrant has the discretion to use a white veil (or more usually the color of the day, normally matching the vestments) to cover the chalice when it is on the credence table. Since the chalice is a holy object by merit of its consecration, it is unveiled only when it is to be used for the celebration of the Mass. In the Dominican Rite of the Mass traditionally celebrated, the hands of the priest (consecrated by the bishop at his ordination) are veiled whenever he is seated by laying a cloth over his hands.
During Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent, it is customary to veil the crucifix and other images in churches. “The practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this [5th] Sunday may be observed” (Order of Prayer for the Celebration of the Hours and Mass). This covering of images has a twofold reason. Prior to 1969, the last lines of the Gospel for Passion Sunday was, “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am.’ They therefore took up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out from the temple” (John 8:58-59). As a way to “act out” Jesus hiding himself before his betrayal, images in the church are hidden from our eyes. This practice possibly comes from the 9th Century in which a purple cloth during Passiontide was hung before the altar to create a “visual fast” and hide the splendor of the Church’s rites from the eyes of the faithful. This created a hunger for the Easter Vigil when the cloth would be taken down and the faithful could see the glorious rites of the Mass again. In this sense, the veiling of images has a penitential effect, by hiding the glorious images of saints for a time so that we might develop a new appreciation for sacred art when they are unveiled for the Paschal solemnities.