Why, in some places, images in churches are covered during Holy Week?

From the Editor’s Desk (Monday, 02-20-2015, Gaudium Press) The image of a catholic temple with all it’s images covered with purple fabric, can be a shocking experience for some devout people, who are accustomed, as usual, to see the beauty shown in a church building as a reflection of God’s own beauty. This custom, which is only practiced in some places from Palm Sunday to the Easter Vigil, contains several meanings and honours a tradition which goes back to the seventeenth century.

Church of Saint Maria.jpg
Church of Saint Maria, La Antigua, in Cincinnati, USA – Photo: NLM

According to Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls, United States, this custom “is certainly allowed,” although it is not obligatory in the liturgy of the Church and could be coming back again into the practice in various places. The priest recalls, in his personal blog, the different origins and meanings of this practice, which are related to the historical deeds of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.

When God hid his glory

An interpretation can be the concealment of God’s glory during the tragic events of the Passion, according to the writings of Abbot Prosper Gueranger (19th century): This ceremony “expresses the humiliation to which our Saviour was subjected, as is stated in the gospel of the Passion Sunday of the Lord” (Palm Sunday). In fact, the best time to cover the images is on the vigil of this solemnity.

Catholics, explains Fr. Erlenbush, worship the cross as a sign of victory, but also of humiliation and suffering. Covering this or that statue in Church, contribute to revive the mystery of Christ’s suffering, when “the divinity of our Saviour was almost totally outshined, so great was his suffering”, he said. “In the same way, even his humanity was obscured, so much that it could be said by the prophet ‘but I and a worm and not a man, men are ashamed of me and the people disregard me” (Psalms 22). The color of the covering cloth is purple, which identifies Lent and conveys the penitential, sober and painful feelings of the events commemorated by the Church.

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High altar of Saint Mary of Perpetual Help Church in Chicago.jpg
High altar of Saint Mary of Perpetual Help
Church in Chicago, USA. Photo: NLM

Some background on this practice can be found in Germany in the ninth century, when the altar was covered until the reading of the Passion, when it is narrated that “the veil of the temple was torn in two”. The practice would also help to emphasize the identification of lent. As Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, recalls, the enshrouding of images was an extension of the practices of public penance done by the faithful in past centuries. Restricting this practice to the Passion Week came about some time later and it was finally included in the Ceremonial of the Bishops in the seventeenth century.

An additional meaning mentioned by Fr. Erlenbush is linked to the fact that there is no Eucharistic celebration on that Friday. “At this time when we enter mystically in the historical realities of the last days of Jesus, it is not appropriate to take a picture, sign or sacrament of the Cross presented to the faithful.” The identification of the Eucharist with the Passion of Christ is the reason offered by St. Thomas Aquinas to explain the absence of the Eucharist on Good Friday, as it is the same mystery is relived sacramentally. In an analogous manner, it is appropriate that, as the liturgical year recalls the events leading to the Crucifixion, the Church hides the images from the crosses from the site of the faithful,” the priest concludes.

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