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In some Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, crosses, statues, and religious images are covered with a piece of cloth known as a veil during the last days of Lent. These Lenten veils are usually purple, the liturgical color of Lent, which signifies repentance (for more on the concept of repentance, see Lent). In some places white veils may be used instead.

Veiling the Altar

The meaning and practice of Lenten veiling has changed substantially since it was first begun in the tenth or eleventh century. In those days the Lenten veil consisted of a large piece of white or purple cloth hung like a drapery to hide the sanctuary, or altar, from the sight of the assembled congregation. The veil typically bore symbols and images representing the suffering that Jesus endured during his last days on earth. In medieval times the veils remained in place throughout Lent. They were usually constructed so that they parted in the middle. During important parts of the service, such as the Gospel reading (a selection from the Christian Bible describing the life and teachings of Christ), the veil was partially opened and afterwards shut again. Lenten veiling was practiced in western Europe and was especially popular in Germany, France, and England. In some places people called the veils "hunger cloths." Since medieval Christians observed Lent by fasting, the name "hunger cloth" may reflect their interpretation of the Lenten veil as a means of enforcing a kind of visual fast that went hand in hand with their reduced intake of food.

During the Middle Ages the Lenten veil remained in place from the beginning of Lent until Wednesday of Holy Week (see also Spy Wednesday). Until recent times the Bible reading scheduled for that day was the story of the last days of Jesus' life as told in the book of the Christian Bible known as the Gospel according to Luke. In Luke's account, at the moment of Jesus' death the veil hiding the innermost sanctuary of the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two (Luke 23:44-46; see also Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38). In the medieval church the Lenten veil parted dramatically at this point in the service, revealing a full view of the sanctuary for the first time since the start of Lent.

In the Jewish religion as practiced in Jesus'day, the veil hanging in the Temple at Jerusalem prevented people from casting their eyes directly on the holiest of objects kept in the sanctuary. Only the high priest could pass beyond the veil, and he did so only once a year, on the festival called the "Day of Atonement," or Yom Kippur. Christian commentators assert that the rending of the Temple veil at the moment of Jesus'death represents the new relationship with God made possible through Christ. Whereas the rituals of the ancient Jews concerning the Temple veil might be interpreted to mean that God was too holy to be approached by ordinary people and therefore inaccessible, Christianity would teach that every believer has direct access to God and that God wants everyone to approach him. The tearing of the Temple veil in the Gospel accounts of Jesus'death symbolizes this teaching. Medieval Christians saw this teaching enacted in symbolic form with the parting of the Lenten veil on Wednesday of Holy Week. In most places the custom of veiling the sanctuary during Lent disappeared around the end of the Middle Ages. As late as 1894, however, this kind of Lenten veiling was still practiced at the cathedral in the Spanish city of Seville. The Spanish added an extra flourish to this old custom. One visitor to Seville in the 1890s reported that at the moment during the service that the Lenten veil parted, a small canon mounted near the altar fired, shattering the silence and illuminating the gloom of the vast cathedral with a series of sudden, explosive flares.

Veiling Statues, Crucifixes, and Other Religious Images

The custom of placing individual veils over statues, crucifixes, and religious imagery also dates back to the tenth century. A thirteenth-century Church document specified that these veils should remain in place from the first Monday in Lent until Easter Monday, that is, the day after Easter. As time went on, however, the custom of veiling religious statues, imagery, and crucifixes shifted to the last two weeks of Lent, a period known as Passiontide. The Gospel reading previously assigned to Passion Sunday, the first day of Passiontide, tells that after a dispute with religious authorities Jesus left the Temple and hid himself (John 8:59). Passiontide veiling came to be seen as an emblem of this story. Many interpret the veiling of images as a symbol of Jesus' disappearance and the veiling of his glory during his last days on earth. According to custom the veils covering crucifixes are removed on Good Friday, and the veils covering other religious imagery are removed during the late-night Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday.

In the early 1960s, as a result of a series of important meetings of Roman Catholic leaders known as Vatican II, Pope John XXIII officially changed many aspects of Roman Catholic religious services. The bishops of each nation were given the power to continue or discontinue the practice of veiling religious images, statues, and crucifixes during Lent. In those parishes that do maintain this old custom, it is now begun during the vespers, or evening, service preceding Palm Sunday and continued until the late-night Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday.

Further Reading

Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. "Veil." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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