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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Traditions of Passiontide

Fr. Scott Haynes

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Fribourg (1612)

The two weeks of Passiontide begin today with this “Passion Week” being followed by “Holy Week.” On this Passion Sunday we recall the increasing tension between Christ and the Jewish leaders who would not accept Him as Messiah. They accused Jesus of sorcery and of blasphemy and being possessed by a devil. Perhaps it is easy for us to condemn in our minds those Jews who called Him a blasphemer and wanted to stone Him. But what of us? Do we heed the Word of God? Do we not mock and deride Jesus by our sinful attitudes? Do we not stone Christ by our sins and end up chasing the Word of God away? The Venerable Bede says,
“Mystically, a man throws as many stones at Jesus as he takes to himself evil thoughts; and, if he dwells on them, he then, as far as it depends on him, destroys Jesus.”

Lenten Veil of the Abbey of Millstatt in Austria (1593)

What of us? Let us put down our stones; let us put away our misdeeds and vices. Let us rather hear the Word of God with an open heart, and live virtuous lives. Let us prepare to receive the Word of God made Flesh in the Holy Eucharist by making a worthy confession. Will evil thoughts come to us? Will temptations assail us? Yes. But by God’s grace we will not consent and throw stones at our Lord. Dear friends in Christ, you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not cast Jesus out of your temple.

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria (1458)

As we enter into this week known as Passiontide, we will behold certain changes in the Liturgy which emphasize Jesus’ increasing suffering and intensifying sorrow. From today we omit the joyful Psalm 42 from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. If we go back to the primitive Church in Rome, we observe that catechumens came out of the baptistery chanting the joyful Psalm 42. As these newly baptized Christians emerged from the font, the Bishop confirmed them, and then, to complete their Christian initiation, went before the Altar to attend, for the very first time, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to receive their first holy Communion. As they left the Baptistery, they chanted Introibo ad Altare Dei:
“I will go unto the Altar of God.” 
On Easter, when Psalm 42 returns we experience the full joy of the Risen Lord and we recall the new life of Christ we won in our baptism.

During Septuagesmia and Lent the joyous Alleluia has been hushed. Now during Passiontide, we silence the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father”) prayer during the Liturgy until we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection on Easter. As we omit the Gloria Patri, we recall the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria, composed of 99 tableaux from Scripture (1458)

Of all the liturgical changes of Passiontide, perhaps the most striking is the covering of the crucifix and statues. Except for the Stations of the Cross, which we use to meditate upon the Jesus’ Passion, we veil most of the sacred images in church with purple cloth until Easter. The tradition of veiling statues during Passiontide is based on today’s Gospel, which tells us that in order to escape his Jewish persecutors,
“Jesus hid and went out of the temple area” (John 8:59).
The veils therefore symbolize how Christ and His apostles hid. Jesus no longer walked and taught openly among men.

The custom of veiling crosses and images has much to commend it in terms of religious psychology. The historical origin of this practice derives from an ancient custom, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent.[1] This cloth, called the hungertuch (hunger cloth), hid the Altar entirely from the faithful. It was first used in Germanic countries and dates to about the year 1,000 A.D. The hunger cloth or fastentuch (fasting veil)[2] does not refer to fasting from food but has reference to visual fasting which leads us to spiritually hunger for the beauty of God and of His Temple.

The hunger cloth hid the whole sanctuary, or at least the High Altar. In Latin it was referred to as velum quadragesimale (“The Veil of the Forty Days”). In Paris, until around the year 1870, such a veil was hung from the first Sunday of Lent until the Sacred Triduum. Even more than a rood screen or an iconostasis, the velum quadragesimale hid the congregation’s view of the Sacred Liturgy. It drew inspiration from the Old Testament, where the veil of the temple shielded the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant from the gaze even of pious Jews.[3]

The hungertuch separated the faithful from the Altar, from God. Symbolically it demonstrated the effects of sin, which sunders mankind from the Beatific vision of heaven. It entailed a form of spiritual penance, a fasting of the eyes from the often brilliantly colored images of the sanctuary. However, by the twelfth century, as the ceremony of the elevation of the Host and Chalice had developed as the climax of the Mass, the veil was lifted just for that moment to allow the congregation to gaze upon Christ. At the reading of the Passion Gospel during Holy Week, the veil was dramatically parted from top to bottom at the words 
“And the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom” (Mt. 27,51; Mk. 15,38; Lk. 23,45).
The drama of the medieval liturgy shone a beautiful light upon the truths of our faith and helped the God’s holy people enter into the Sacred Mysteries. This dramatic visual action of the Liturgy gave life to the words of the Gospel and reinforced its meaning in their hearts.

Having prepared yourself to receive the Word made Flesh through a worthy Confession, may the veil that covers your eyes today be rent in two, from top to bottom, so that you might behold your crucified and risen Savior who comes to you in love and who is present here before you in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

[1] The Sacred Congregation of Rites has affirmed that the use of the great veil of Lent closing off the sanctuary is indeed permissible (decr. auth. 3448, 11 May 1878). We still have something of the “visual Lent” of our forefathers since we have kept the Roman usage of veiling the crosses and statues before First Vespers of Passion Sunday (fifteen days before Easter).
[2] Martin Luther, who opposed the idea of Lent and of penance, tried to make the fastentuch disappear in all of Germany. Little by little they fell into disuse, and from the end of the 19th century the use had practically disappeared. Curiously, this ancient tradition reappeared vigorously beginning in 1974, when the charitable association “Misereor” had the idea of producing a fastentuch to give concrete expression to Christians’ Lenten efforts. This initiative has a certain impact all over Germany, leading to the rediscovery of this tradition, the restoration of numerous historic veils that slept in the vaults of cathedrals or museums, and their suspension in sanctuaries once more. There was so much interest that even the Lutherans were moved to put them up! Currently, it is estimated that one third of German Catholic churches as well as many hundreds of Lutheran parishes hang up a veil during Lent. From Germany the practice is expanding currently into Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland and even France.
[3] The Old Testament, a type of the New, speaks of a veil that covered the Holy of Holies, first in the itinerant Tabernacle of the desert, then in the Temple of Jerusalem (according to St. Paul, the veil that was rent at the death of Christ was the second veil, and a first veil closed off the Holy Place. Cf. Hebrews 9:3). The first Christian churches used the sanctuary veil as much in the West as in the East. one finds in the Liber Pontificalis several references to popes (e.g. Sergius I, Gregory III, Zachary, Hadrian I) who donated veils to ornament the arcades of the ciboria and the sanctuaries of Roman churches. Many ancient Eastern and Western liturgies contain a prayer—the prayer of the veil—that the celebrant says when, during the offertory, he leaves the choir and enters the sanctuary, going beyond the veil that closed it off. The prayer of the veil in the Liturgy of St James, which represents the ancient use of the Church of Jerusalem, is justly renowned: “We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou hast renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ. We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness: Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar, and to offer this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our own sins and for the errors of the people: send forth, O God, Thy good grace, and sanctify our souls, and bodies, and spirits; and turn our thoughts to holiness, that with a pure conscience we may bring to Thee a peace-offering, the sacrifice of praise: By the mercy and loving-kindness of Thy only-begotten Son, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and always. Amen.” in the Armenian Church, the usual curtain is replaced during Lent by a black curtain. This black curtain always remains closed during mass and the Lenten offices, symbolizing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is not opened until Palm Sunday. The Russians likewise change their usual brightly colored curtain for a somber-colored one during the weekdays of Great Lent. All the other veils and coverings of the church are similarly changed. Brightly colored curtains return on Holy Saturday during the Paschal Vigil, right before the singing of the Gospel of the Resurrection, while the choir sings “Rise up, O Lord, and judge the earth.”


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