By Rev. James L. Bartoloma, JCL
The fifth Sunday in Lent is the beginning of the time traditionally known as "Passiontide". The fourth Sunday, "Laetare Sunday" is more upbeat with symbols of anticipated joy such as rose colored vestments, flowers on the altar, etc. But with the fifth Sunday, the spirit of Lent becomes even more somber and intense, with readings that focus on the mounting tensions between Jesus and those who will put Him to death and prayers that begin to focus more on the sufferings of the Lord.
With this intensifying spirit that is brought out in the prayers and readings at Mass, there should also be an intensification of the three disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Fasting is not simply fasting from food. Fasting is also fasting from all sorts of things that we might take for granted and that would normally give us consolation. For this reason, there is an ancient tradition that the cross and sometimes even the statues are covered to deprive our senses of the beauty and consolation of seeing the sacred images. With some of the recent liturgical changes, the custom is once again permitted during this time of Lent.
We miss seeing the crucifix just as we might miss something that we gave up for Lent and look forward to on Easter; when the days of sacrifice are concluded. What makes a church beautiful is taken away gradually: the crucifix and other symbols, until what is the most precious in a church and gives the most consolation, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, is removed from the tabernacle and main body of the church on Holy Thursday and taken to the repository chapel. The Lord is removed from His Temple.
Covering, veiling, and hiding sacred objects and people actually draws more attention to their presence and holiness. For example: the veil over the Holy of Holies in the temple during the time of the Old Testament and Moses covering his face with a veil after he had conversed with God. And in the Church now, things such as chalice veils, tabernacle veils, veils on brides, etc. It is a paradox that the covering of the object makes one more aware of its presence and makes one long to see it; a very good sentiment that builds up to the unveiling of the cross on Good Friday and when all of the images are uncovered, the lights go on, the candles are lit, the bells are again rung, and one can see the beauty of the church at Easter.
One would typically expect to see the Crucifix during this time of Lent. One longs to see Jesus. But just as on the one day when we would most expect the Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered, Good Friday, and there is no Mass celebrated but instead a service is prayed; so with covering the cross, the paradox works to make a person even more aware and appreciative of what this image represents. In the end, like many aspects of Lent, it is a sacrifice that makes one long for and better able to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection at Easter.