Beginning on the fifth Sunday of Lent (formerly known as Judica Sunday after the first words of the introit “Judge me, O Lord”) and throughout passiontide, a number of churches veil all statues, images and crosses in purple cloth.
Many theories exist as to the historical origins of this practice. During the ninth century in Germany, a cloth known as the Hungertuch hid the altar during Lent and was not removed until the reading of the Passion at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.” Some people believe the tradition arose from the reading of the Gospel which speaks of Jesus hiding himself from the crowd that was about to stone him (John 8:59). Still others speculate that the custom developed in a period in which crosses were more ornate and covered in precious jewels. Covering these resplendent crosses helped the faithful meditate on the sufferings of Christ.
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted in 2006, “The veiling of crosses and images is a sort of ‘fasting’ from sacred depictions which represent the paschal glory of our salvation. Just as the Lenten fast concludes with the Paschal feast, so too, our fasting from the cross culminates in a veneration of the holy wood on which the sacrifice of Calvary was offered for our sins. Likewise, a fasting from the glorious images of the mysteries of faith and the saints in glory, culminates on the Easter night with a renewed appreciation of the glorious victory won by Christ, risen from the tomb to win for us eternal life.”
Revised from a post originally published on “To God, About God” (students.opwest.org)