Lent has a strange way about it, doesn’t it?
If your church actually celebrates Lent, and you’ve been at all able to attend worship throughout the season, then you’ve more than noticed the peculiar nature of the whole thing.
The kids in the 3rd grade here in our school were wondering why we veil the crucifixes during Lent. To a few of them, it seemed like the last thing we should be doing. A student from one of the upper grades had the same thought and mentioned it to me before school one morning.
“Isn’t that kinda what the season of Lent is all about—Jesus dying on the cross?” he asked.
A very intuitive question regarding a practice that might appear to be counterintuitive. But if you know why we do it, it isn’t as capricious as you might think.
The Christian Church has marked Lent in this way for centuries, and depending upon which history writer you go to, there are various reasons given—and by the way, I fully expect my clergy-friends to critique this post, some of whom being sure to tell me what I’ve got wrong, here. But in the end, no matter the interpretation of the practice in the Church’s annals, most unfold carrying similar themes.
As a young pastor, when I first saw veils on crucifixes here in my own church, I didn’t ask why they were there. I just assumed it had to do with texts like Isaiah 25:7 which reads:
“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.”
The veil Isaiah is talking about is Sin.
When you know that it’s the Messiah who will take upon and then lift the veil, and when you couple that with Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which say that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” it makes sense for the veil to be applied to Jesus on the cross, especially during the season of Lent.
I also thought it might have to do with the veil in the temple and the fact that Christ is the One who accomplished that which would cause its tearing in half (Hebrews 10:19-22).
But I learned that neither of these were the actual reasons the church has participated in the practice. Oh, well. It sure was teaching me something, even if I didn’t know what it was, exactly. In other words, it had me thinking.
For one, most historians will pretty much tell you that the practice of veiling church adornments was far more dramatic than it is today. In fact, walking into a church in the twelfth century, you’d have seen the entire sanctuary space veiled. The pulpit and lectern would have been visible, but the altar itself would have been blocked from view. Extending out from there, all crucifixes, icons, statues, and in some cases, even some of the stained glass windows would have veils, too.
The fact that something is hidden from our sight should be the first thing we notice. Veils are barriers. They block us from seeing what’s really there.
One of the reasons that the church first started employing the practice of veiling the visuals in churches is because if ever there was a time to not be distracted by anything else around us and to listen to the Word of God—to really listen to the inspired texts given by God with the message of that which saves us—it was Lent. The story of the One who has come to die and rise again—and every iota of what that means—is at the center of Lent’s message. It is the most precise of the commemorative times. If somehow we missed the Gospel throughout the rest of the year, it is imperative that we not miss it now. Just for a time, cover the crosses. Cover the icons. Cover the images. Cover it all.
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of the Gospel of our suffering Savior, Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). Listen carefully. You’re hearing what happened. It’s the story that has a power no other story possesses. Listen. Listen very carefully.
In order to teach the students another of the reasons for veiling the crucifixes, during our Thursday chapel service I read to them Exodus 34:29-35. This is a portion of the story of Moses veiling his face after being in the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai. The veil hid the glory of God that was still reflecting from Moses even after he’d left the Lord’s presence.
In the New Testament, when Jesus speaks of the glory of God, He often does so in reference to the truest glory of God being displayed on the cross (John 7:39; 12:23-29; Mark 10:37-38). Behold, the One true God who would die for the sins of the world! There is nothing more glorious in all of history than this. When we put a veil on the crucifix, we are saying something about the manifested glory that’s truly being represented there.
The veils teach us this.
I suppose another motive brings us back around to where we began. Veils block our views of things. I probably don’t have to remind you of the depth of the theology behind the fact that the Second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, was veiled in the flesh (John 1:14; Philippians 2:7-8, and the like). It’s the reason we sing at Christmastime, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail, th’ incarnate Deity: Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!”
Emmanuel, God with us—and yet veiled.
But finally, veils are anticipatory. They keep us at the edge of our seats as we await the one great day when the veil of this life will be lifted and we will see God face to face. One day we will depart from this life and we will be raised in our bodies to be with God in His nearest presence.
Thinking on this, can you guess when the veils will be removed from the crucifixes? Yep, Easter, the celebratory day of the resurrection of our Lord and the promise that we, too, will pass through death and rise to new life! In this, the veil is lifted forevermore!
I pray that as you continue to keep the Lenten fast, the various practices swirling among you in the midst of the season will serve to keep your focus on Christ and His work to save you. It’s a powerful time of penitent reflection and spiritual honing, all for the purpose of knowing more deeply the passion of our Savior—the cost for our sins and His willingness to pay it.