“Some Greeks” say, “we would like to see Jesus.” On this 5th Sunday of Lent, some of you may very well be saying, “We would like to see Jesus, or my favorite statue.” In the Dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images may be observed beginning with the 5th Sunday of Lent. Crosses, with the exception of processional crosses, remain covered until the end of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, but images can remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil. Why? What does this ancient practice mean? Why the 5th Sunday of Lent and what does this have to do with the Theology of the Body? All good questions, so let us look at the answers and learn something about our faith and Our Lord.
In a world that is losing its sense of meaning and purpose, these liturgical actions do have a rich mystical and spiritual meaning and purpose pointing to a reality in Jesus Christ – His hiddenness. This practice goes back to at least the publication of the Bishop’s Ceremonial of the 17th century. In the old liturgical calendar beginning with the 5th Sunday of Lent was called the Passiontide due to the fact that the Passion account of our Lord was read on this Sunday, Palm Sunday and Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week. Also, as Fr Edward McNamara notes, “it probably derives from a custom, noted in Germany from the 9th century, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent. The cloth called the ‘Hungertuch’(hunger cloth), hid the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday at the words ‘the veil of the temple was rent in two.’”
I find the mystical reason for more important and profound. By His becoming incarnate from us, Jesus’ Divinity was constantly veiled by His humanity. Also, the time immediately prior to His Passion Jesus at times was hidden from the world in preparation for His upcoming Passion. He even went so far as to hide Himself and slip away from angry Jewish authorities. Covering of the Crosses and saints is also for many, a sign of the humiliation to which Jesus subjected Himself for us. In addition, there are spiritual reasons for covering the Crosses. While it is true we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14) as a sign of victory, we also see it as an instrument of humiliation and suffering for the Lord and want to honor the words of the prophet Isaiah 53:3: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned and we held Him in no esteem.” Since we cannot put cloths over our heads, we do it to Him. It represents our shame and our sin He took upon Himself! He was regarded as a sinner and hence, spurned for our offenses. King David echoed Isaiah’s lament with his psalm of lament, psalm 22. This is the psalm Jesus quotes on the cross before His death with the words from verse 1: “my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” But, verse 7 says: “I am a worm and no man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” In other words due to His excruciating suffering even His human semblance was veiled and covered. The glory of the Master is hidden, so should the servants be hidden from His suffering countenance. Jesus “hid His glory out of deep humility and self-renunciation.” This was part of His self-giving love.
That is some history and some mystical and spiritual reasons for the cross and images being covered, but what about the readings and Theology of the Body? The prophet Jeremiah 31:31-34 says, “they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master. Jesus did just this, He showed the face of the Father to us and we accepted Him not. The author to the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that when “Christ was in the flesh he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence.” Do we offer loud cries and tears to the one who can save us from death out of reverence for Him? We know the grain of wheat (Jesus) had to go into the ground and die to produce much fruit. But, have we denied ourselves and died to ourselves in humility to bear fruit for others this Lent? Remember Jesus words in today’s Gospel John 12:20-33: “whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”
In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the great saint points out that we were created in original holiness, solitude and innocence. In fact we are created in God’s image and likeness, but due to the Fall our likeness has become hidden and veiled. After the Fall Adam and Eve hid themselves in shame not knowing what God’s response would be to their sin (missing the mark). While in justice He had to cast them out of the Garden, in mercy he did not destroy them and made loin clothes for them to cover their shame. Due to our own personal sin we have often “hid from God” and not frequented the sacraments, out of shame. Jesus came to redeem us and pull off the blinders of our eyes and reveal the Father to us, and our real self to our false self. All of Creation is indeed also groaning inwardly and outwardly with loud cries and tears awaiting Jesus’s second coming when all of Creation is fully redeemed and there will be no more wailing or lamentation. But, until He Comes again, we beckon His Divine Mercy with Psalm 51 and beg Him to “create a clean heart in me, O God.” We ask Him to pull the yoke of shame and woundedness off us, which we have covered ourselves in by sin and vice and escaped by hiding from Him. We hide ourselves from God, not for the reasons Jesus veiled His glory from us. We hide out of shame, insecurity and lack of identity.
This is why it is indeed so glorious to live the liturgy alive in the reality of the life of Jesus Christ and only then, when we pull the veil of the liturgy away and see some of the deeper meaning to the signs and symbols – do we see Jesus in the Sacred Mysteries we celebrate and they become alive for us and teach us who we truly are, adopted sons and daughters of the Father. It is sorrowful to Jesus suffer on the Cross – yet glorious when we expose Jesus on the Cross during the Good Friday liturgy. It is only by His Cross and Resurrection that He has set us free. St John Paul II reminds us we are destined for Christ in Heaven where we the bride, the Church, will be fully wedded to the Bridegroom, Christ. So, as the Church veils and unveils the Cross and sacred images, remember who it was who first veiled Himself to us and unveils us of our shame and sin. Praised be Jesus Christ – now and forever.
Fr. Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. He most recently served as Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in White Plains, NY. He joins the staff of the Theology of the Body Institute on a three year leave from the Archdiocese of New York, to become the Institute’s first full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development.