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One of the Lenten practices I miss is the veiling of the statues during Lent. Why don’t we do that anymore? It was so meaningful.
Covered statues and crucifixes that were made to look like big black or purple blobs were meaningful? More meaningful than the statues themselves? Well, to each one’s own, I suppose.
In a statement dated April 1995, the then Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy responded to inquiries regarding the veiling of statues and crosses during Lent. The article concluded, “the National Conference of Catholic Bishops never voted to continue the practice of covering crosses and images and so the practice, in accord with the rubric of the Sacramentary, has not been permissible for the past twenty-five years. Individual parishes are not free to reinstate the practice on their own.”
The current version of the Roman Missal, however, rectifies that situation, as a rubric for the Fifth Sunday of Lent indicates that from that Sunday on the practice of covering statues and crucifixes may be observed in the dioceses of the United States. If done, crucifixes are to remain covered until after the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, while statues remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.
The covering of images is rooted in the medieval tradition of visual fasting. In Germany, for example, a so-called hungertuch or hunger cloth was hung in front of the sanctuary, hiding the magnificent high altar from sight throughout Lent. The name “hunger cloth” does not refer to fasting from food but rather to visual fasting. This visual fasting, which was intended to cause spiritual hunger, was not from all images but rather from those images that were colorful and magnificent. Hunger cloths themselves were covered with images of Jesus and the saints, though muted and more simplistic. These were intended to inspire the faithful who gazed on them during Lent.
Another example of this kind of visual fast is the medieval custom of closing triptychs (paintings consisting of three panels) or polyptychs (paintings consisting of multiple panels). The inside of these paintings was very colorful and richly decorated. The back of the side panels had images of saints or saintly scenes that were painted in grisaille or gray tones. During penitential seasons, the side panels were shut, thus hiding the colorful inside yet revealing the images of saints, painted in grays on the outside. This allowed the faithful to meditate on the lives of the saints, while fasting from the magnificent inside. When they were reopened on Sundays and holy days, the visual hunger of people was satisfied as they gazed upon a magnificent foreshadowing of heaven.
In either case, though visually deprived from the more splendid high altar or paintings, the faithful were left with the images of the passion of Christ or of the saints so they might meditate on them and be inspired by them during their Lenten journey.
Since it is our goal—especially during Lent—to become more and more like Christ, we may be well served by meditating on the cross as well as on the lives of the saints that surround us in our church. Hiding them from sight does not necessarily support this spiritual goal.
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.
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