Q. Why do some churches cover their crosses and images with a purple veil in late Lent, while others do not?
A. Here in the United States the optional custom of veiling crosses and/or statues is allowed, in accordance with regulations published by the U.S. Bishops acting upon the rubrics in the most recent edition of the Roman Missal, the Sacramentary. The rubrics, which are self-explanatory, read:
“…the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday [i.e., the Fifth Sunday of Lent] may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”
The color of the veil covering the cross is mentioned in Rubric 15, which explains the Showing of the Holy Cross with the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. Therein we read that the deacon or another suitable minister “carries the Cross covered with a violet veil…” (An alternative form of the Showing of the Cross allows for an unveiled cross to be carried into the sanctuary.)
Again, though, the veiling of crosses and/or statues is now optional; the decision lies with the local pastor. Directives and guidelines for the Archdiocese of Hartford reflect the rubrics given in the Roman Missal.
Historically, the origins of the practice of veiling crosses and/or statues (and other images) dates from a Roman custom. According to Jesuit scholar Father Francis X. Weiser, on the eve of Passion Sunday (i.e., the Fifth Sunday of Lent), crucifixes, statues and pictures in churches were covered with purple cloth during ancient times (i.e., prior to 500 A.D.). The custom apparently began in the Papal Chapel of the Vatican and occurred in the Sacred Liturgy when the Deacon of Mass chanted the concluding words of Passion Sunday’s Gospel; namely, John 8:59 (“Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple.”).
A practical norm about veiled images is concisely expressed in the directives and guidelines for the Archdiocese of Hartford: “Crosses are unveiled following the Good Friday Liturgy. Statues are unveiled before the beginning of the Easter Vigil.” Veils, incidentally, should be simple, and unveiling is not to be done as a ceremonial aspect of any liturgy.
While on the subject of Lenten customs, questions are often raised as to the source of the blessed ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday, the opening day of Lent. The source is the residue from burning the blessed palms of the previous Palm Sunday. The name, “Ash Wednesday,” seems to have been given the first day of Lent by Pope Urban II (1099).