For followers of Catholicism, no time during the year is as meaningful as the season of Lent. Traditionally, many symbolic gestures are made during Lent. Catholics often fast, abstain from eating meat on Fridays, make special sacrifices, and statues in the church building are covered with veils beginning on the fifth Sunday of Lent, known as Passiontide.
Lent is a penitential season beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. Catholics spend the eight weeks leading up to Easter reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus, who they believe to be the Son of God. One of the basic tenets of Christianity is that Jesus sacrificed his own life to spare humans from spending eternity in hell. For 40 days before his death, Jesus fasted. Catholics imitate his fasting by making special sacrifices in honor of the Lenten season. Sacrifices made during Lent are not required on Sundays, because every Sunday is recognized as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Passiontide begins on the fifth Sunday of Lent. During Passiontide, statues and crosses are covered with purple or red cloths. This practice has its roots in 9th century Germany. At the beginning of Lent, a cloth called a Hungertuch, or Hunger Cloth, covered the altar. On the Wednesday before Easter, the cloth was removed when reading Mark 15:38 in the Bible: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” During the Middle Ages, statues of saints and other images were covered at the start of Lent. Beginning in the 17th century, veiling was limited to Passiontide instead of throughout Lent.
Reasons for the Veils
In the past, many followers of the Catholic religion were illiterate. The church service was done in Latin, a language many did not speak. The congregation needed a reminder that they were in the somber season of Lent, so the altar was covered. The traditional color for veils was purple, a color that represents penance and humility.
During the Second Vatican Council, movements were made to put an end to veiling statues, but this tradition is still practiced today. Red is often used today for most veils because it symbolizes blood and martyrdom. A common exception to this is the Good Friday procession. On the Friday before Easter, the day that commemorates Jesus’ death, the priest and deacons carry a cross, covered with a purple cloth, down the aisle of the church. They remove the cloth so the congregation can venerate the cross. The red veils on the other statues in the church remain until the Easter Vigil on the following night.
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