Saturday, April 9, 2011

Passion Time

Until 1969, these final 2 weeks of Lent beginning tomorrow were officially known as "Passion Time" or “Passiontide.” It was – and still is (even without a proper name) - a time when the varied themes of the Lenten season coalesce in the contemplation of the conflict between Jesus and the powers of this world, expounded at length in this coming week’s Johannine pericopes, and culminating in Holy week in his death on the cross. For centuries, it has been the Church’s custom on this day (in anticipation of what was until recently called “Passion Sunday”) to cover the crosses and other statues at the various altars in purple cloth. Traditionally, the crosses remain covered until after the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, the other images remaining covered until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. The origin of this practice is itself somewhat shrouded. One theory derives it from a medieval German custom of the “Hunger Cloth,” which hid the altar during Lent. Another theory – the one I myself learned as a teen – recalls how early crucifixes tended to depict the Risen Christ, triumphantly vested as a priest and crowned as a king. Such images would appropriately be veiled during the latter part of Lent - only to be dramatically unveiled on Good Friday. According to this theory, by the time liturgical art caught up with medieval popular piety’s devotion to the suffering humanity of Christ, resulting in the depiction of the dead Christ on the cross, the custom of covering the crucifixes had become an established sign of this season (and acquired the force of liturgical law). The choice of this particular Sunday to cover the crosses and other images may also have beeen connected to the Gospel reading formerly read on this day (John 8:46-59), which ended with the words: Jesus autem abscondit se, et exivit de templo (“Jesus however hid himself and went out of the Temple”). Like so many other valued traditions, the Lenten covering of crosses and statues disappeared in some places in the 1970s – reflecting that era’s obsessive rebelliousness regarding the past, as well as the influence upon the liturgy of modern rationalism with it tragically limited appreciation of the depth and staying power of non-verbal symbols. Psychologically, the traditional practice of visually getting our attention by covering crosses and statues in these final weeks of Lent is certainly very powerful, as is the dramatic ritual gesture of uncovering the cross on Good Friday.

Where still practiced (or has been restored) this profoundly affecting custom sets these last weeks of Lent apart from the entire year, thus highlighting the perennial conflict between Jesus and the powers of this world – a tension we forget or ignore only at great peril both to ourselves and to the world.

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