By Fr. Edward McNamara
Q: In the new Roman Missal the color for covering the cross is violet; however, the color is red for the vestments. I have noticed that different churches do red and some violet; even the Vatican used red, which is the proper color for veiling the cross on Good Friday. — M.P., St. Petersburg, Florida
A: The Roman Missal says the following with respect to covering images.
On the fifth Sunday of Lent: “The practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday may be observed, if the Conference of Bishops so decides. 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.”
No specific color is mentioned here, but violet may be reasonably presumed because this is the traditional color and it also corresponds to the liturgical season.
The missal is clearer regarding the first form of showing the cross on Good Friday:
“The Deacon accompanied by ministers, or another suitable minister, goes to the sacristy, from which, in procession, accompanied by two ministers with lighted candles, he carries the Cross, covered with a violet veil, through the church to the middle of the sanctuary.”
In the extraordinary form, violet is also stipulated both for Good Friday and for covering all images and crosses exposed for public veneration before the vespers that precede the first Sunday of Passiontide (fifth Sunday of Lent in the present calendar).
As our reader points out, however, at the Holy Father’s celebration of Good Friday a red-colored veil has been used in recent years.
This might be a particular custom of papal liturgy, similar to the tradition that red vestments are also used for a pope’s funeral.
As mentioned once or twice in previous articles (see March 8, 2005), the historical origin of this practice probably derives from a custom, noted in Germany from the ninth century, of extending a large cloth before the altar from the beginning of Lent.
This cloth, called the “Hungertuch” (hunger cloth), hid the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”
Some authors say there was a practical reason for this practice, insofar as the often-illiterate faithful needed a way to know it was Lent.
Others, however, maintain that it was a remnant of the ancient practice of public penance in which the penitents were ritually expelled from the church at the beginning of Lent.
After the ritual of public penance fell into disuse — but the entire congregation symbolically entered the order of penitents by receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday — it was no longer possible to expel them from the church. Rather, the altar or “Holy of Holies” was shielded from view until they were reconciled to God at Easter.
For analogous motives, later on in the Middle Ages, the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent.
The rule of limiting this veiling to Passiontide came later and does not appear until the publication of the Ceremonial of Bishops, of the 17th century.
After the Second Vatican Council there were moves to abolish all veiling of images, but the practice survived, although in a mitigated form.