St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who Covered Up All The Statues?

I've been asked this question a lot lately since more places started doing this before Holy Week.  To answer the question directly- I have no idea who.  I think the question people really want to know is- Why are the statues covered? If you're not sure what I'm talking about, it is probably the custom of your parish or worship site to do this only on Good Friday (which has been the liturgical norm until now).  This is probably one of those things that we do every year, but a lot of people may not know why.

The requirement in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is that on Good Friday, the altar is to be bare, without cloth, candles or cross.  The cross that is normally visible is covered, so that more focus and emphasis is given on the cross that is used during the Good Friday liturgy.  Images of saints such as statues or icons are also covered since these are rather celebratory and signs of the Resurrection.  You'll also notice that candles (which remind us of Christ being the light of the world) are used minimally- only for the Blessed Sacrament and the cross that is used for the Good Friday liturgy.  All this is done as a stark and sobering reminder that our Lord suffered and died on this day.

In a lot of places, the custom of veiling or covering of statues and icons is done before Good Friday.  Some of this is liturgical innovation that has become more widely accepted, and some of it is following an older tradition.  Before the liturgical revision in 1970, it was the norm to cover crosses and images during the Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent.  They were then uncovered at the Easter Vigil when the Gloria is sung.  When the liturgy was revised after Vatican II, this custom of covering crosses and images during the last two weeks of Lent was left up to the conference of bishops in each country, and the US bishops did not elect to include it.

The new 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal (RM III), now permits the covering of crosses and statues beginning on the 5th Sunday of Lent:
In the Dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this Sunday 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.
This is why more places started doing it this year.  Personally, I'm not sure about covering the cross before Good Friday, but during the last two weeks of Lent there is some value to fasting from the externals (such as the images of saints) so that our focus is directed more to the essentials- the altar and the cross.

Minneapolis-St Paul's Fr Paul Hartmann gives a good analogy for this, comparing the covered images to presents that are gift wrapped.  We know they are there.  We may know what's in package, but they are covered or wrapped in anticipation of the occasion we're about to celebrate.  In this case, the celebration is Easter, and the imagery of saints and other representations of heaven can be considered small gifts from our Lord on the occasion of His resurrection.

On a funny note, when somebody asks me why the statues are covered, I like to joke and say, "Because it's easier than removing them."   Then I watch for the perplexed look on the individual's face.  They actually do remove them in some places, but this is not done often since statues can be pretty heavy!

May you have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyous Easter. 


  1. Covering sacred images during the last two weeks of Easter is one of my favorite Church customs.

    Last year, our then 3-year old son remarked upon entering our local parish on the 5th Sunday of Lent, "Why are there ghosts in church?"

    The way our pastor explained it, the custom stems at least partly from the Gospel that traditionally was -- and still is, in the Tridentine Liturgical Calendar -- proclaimed on the 5th Sunday of Lent, or Passion Sunday.

    The Gospel reading on that Sunday is from John 8, culminating in verses 58-59:

    "Jesus said to them, 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.' So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area."

    As our pastor explained it, the idea is that by "hiding" the images of Jesus (and His friends the saints) on that day, we are acting in solidarity with Him.

    1. Great comment, John!

      I had heard the same thing about reading from John 8 on the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Tridentine calendar; and most think that was the reason for covering statues during that time. Funny thing was, I couldn't find any mention of it being the specific reason in any of the rubrics that I could find. (Anybody have a really old Roman Missal or Bishops' Ceremonial around?)

      I'm betting that the long-time custom of covering images probably has a multi-factorial origination, like many of the traditions in our faith. Guess you'll have that when you're part of a faith that is more than 2,000 years old!


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