Why will statues in churches be veiled starting this Sunday? Why is this Day of the Lord referred to as "Passion Sunday" and how does it serve as the gateway into Passiontide?
Image above: an ancient mosaic in the Ravenna basilica depicting a crux gemmata.
The liturgical meaning of Passion Sunday
Nothing better to grasp the spirit of the Church than to turn to the liturgical texts. This is most true of Passiontide and Holy Week. The Church’s Year of Grace of Dr. Pius Parsch offers a few points of interest.
- As the Church enters the period of mourning the divine Bridegroom, she puts on the widow’s garments. The commemoration of Christ’s suffering is expressed in various ways.
- The last remaining traces of joy are eliminated: the Gloria Patri of the Introit, Lavabo and Breviary responsories. The omission of Psalm 42 at the foot of the altar, as in the Requiem Masses.
- The prayers and readings relate the theme of suffering to that of baptism. A favorite contrast, the pagan Ninivites (catechumens) do penance while the Jews plan to kill Jesus. Jeremias, a type of Christ, laments over the Jews "who perfidiously leave their Lord, the fountain of living water."
- One of the most striking changes in the Passiontide is that the crosses and statues are draped, as an outward sign of the Church’s inward sorrow. It is not difficult to understand why the wailing garments are placed over the statues, which could distract us from the meditations of the Passion.
It is however quite enigmatic for the Christians today to understand why the crosses have to be veiled. Why is not the sorrowful Crucifix visible to our eyes so as to draw tears of devotion? Just the contrary would be more intelligible.
In fact, this veiling of the Cross is a relic from an ancient practice. When crosses, without the corpus, shone glorious with gold and precious stones (the crux gemmata), there was deep meaning in the practice of veiling their brilliance during the days when the Bridegroom was taken away. The Church was putting on the widow’s weeds.
This tiny detail is a clear symbol of a very different approach between ancient and modern Christianity. Today, popular piety proceeds to review Holy Week historically; it pictures with great fidelity the various scenes of the "bitter passion," it dissects all the feelings and thoughts of our suffering Savior, it analyzes the virtues displayed by the Lord at every step. "How shall I imitate Him… what can I learn from Him?" are its most important questions. Suffering is the great motive for amendment: "He died on the Cross for me, and I have offended Him so deeply."
The ancient Christians followed a different course. Of course, it also put Christ’s suffering up front but it was aiming too at the purpose of the Passion. By His suffering, Christ redeemed us and made us children of God. And, on what apparently is the most tragic day of the whole year, on Good Friday, we lift our voices in jubilant song: "See, because of this wood joy has come into the whole world!" The early Christians were not so eager to speak of the bitter passion as of the beata passio, the happy or blessed passion.
Perhaps a harmonious blending of the two mindsets is achieved on Good Friday. On that day of the great Sacrifice of the High Priest, the Church abstains from offering the divine sacrifice: instead of the divine Action, the liturgy is mostly commemorative and historical. Yet, with this initial meditation of the historical passion of Our Lord, as the ceremony progresses, it has us rejoice before the unveiled cross, presented as the glorious trophy with the Redeemer having fulfilled His mission. The rite ends with a glorious, joyful song to the Cross, to the Lord’s resurrection:
Thy Cross, Lord, we adore!
We praise and acclaim Thy holy resurrection.
Behold, through the wood of the Cross
Joy has come into the whole world.