As we continue to journey through Lent we are getting to what could be colloquially called the ‘business end’ of it.
The last two weeks of Lent, starting on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (22 March this year) used to be called Passiontide in the Catholic Church.
Although Passiontide was removed from the Liturgical Calendar in 1969 it is still a common practice in Catholic churches to cover the Crucifix and statues in purple veils.
There are different reasons given for this custom. One is that it Jesus hid himself when confronted by a violent crowd in the Temple (Jn 8:59). This was in the Gospel reading for the old Passion Sunday (John 8:46-59).
The historical origin of this practice probably derives from a custom, noted in Germany from the ninth century, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent.
This cloth, called the ‘Hungertuch’ (hunger cloth), hid the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.” Another writer says, that the symbols of Jesus are veiled to remind us that his divinity was hidden during his suffering and death.
Today, the veils remain in place until after the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday afternoon.
So for the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday (4 April) the church is restored to it’s usual splendour, because the penitential season is over (represented by the purple coloured veils) and the Lord is no longer hiding as He shows Himself to His disciples that He is indeed Risen from the dead, as He said He would.
Whatever the reason is, the custom means that those two weeks are made distinct within Lent and therefore focuses our minds that we are preparing to enter into the Lord’s Passion and death.
He is going to be taken from us when He dies on the Cross and the veiling symbolically represents this.
By submitting Himself to His death on the Cross, He rose from the dead on the third day and so won eternal life for us.