Holy Water! Or, There Is An Eastertide In The Affairs Of Men

by John M. Joyce (April 2012)

"Now the queen of seasons, bright
with the day of splendour,
with the royal feast of feasts,
comes its joy to render."
(Saint John of Damascus2)

Many a parish priest can't help but mark off his time on earth by using the Christian Kalendar and in that respect I am no different from most of the other priests in England; many, many years of serving in this my lovely country parish as priest, and often confidant, to my parishioners has meant that I too tend to think from one Advent to the next, from one Lent to the next, or from one Easter to the next rather than from one years end to the next. Sometimes of an evening when I ought to be working instead of snoozing in front of the fire in my study after dinner, I remember my time here by the Christenings, the Confirmations, the Marriages and the Burials as well – the wonderful, comfortable course of quiet and satisfying country life that has gone on for as long as most Englishmen alive can remember, and indeed for far, far longer than that. There are moments, in evenings like that, when one becomes acutely aware that the rhythms of Christ's Church are fine tuned to the beat of the seasons and the tasks of the farm – to the natural flow of life, in fact.

In some years, however, nature doesn't move quite as smoothly as it usually does and even the Church's millenia old Kalendar can be hard to keep to. Sometimes, too, something can happen in a parish that can affect even the most phlegmatic of priests and disturb even the most calm of congregations. I'm thinking, as you probably suspected, of a particular incident that happened in my parish not so many Easters ago.

***

It all started when it began to rain in the early hours of Palm Sunday: not just ordinary rain but really heavy rain that woke me from my slumbers in my nice warm bedroom in my vicarage next to the Church as it rattled off the good Welsh slate of the roof and gurgled along the gutterings with a sort of joyful watery disrespect as it headed for the roans. When I got up a few hours later it was still raining and it was coming down much more heavily than during the night. It was criminal rain, the sort that could have been charged with menacing the lieges and found guilty in any court in the land. It still hadn't stopped by the time I came out of the Vestry after Matins. It's only a matter of a hundred yards or so through God's acre and up to the Vicarage but I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got into the house and I certainly wasn't looking forward to going out again to celebrate the Eucharist in a couple of hours but, as was my usual wont, I poured myself a cup of hot water and went through to my study to put the finishing touches to the homily that I would deliver from my Chancel steps at that very service.

Needless to say, the hour to go across to the Church and vest for Mass came round all too quickly and I put on my raincoat, sou'wester and galoshes before opening the side door and stepping out onto the path which led through my shrubbery and thence through the graveyard to the Church. After just a couple of steps I was, despite centuries of gravel and careful maintenance, almost up to my ankles in mud on the path. To say that it was raining heavily would have been an understatement for it was a deluge of Biblical proportions; indeed, I hadn't seen rain like it since a holiday taken some years before to Kerala in Southern India to visit with a colleague and watch the monsoon rains come ashore. There was nothing for it but to trudge muddily through the house (my housekeeper's wrath notwithstanding), grab my trusty, ancient gamp and leave through the front door, proceed down my short carriageway then along the public pavement and enter the Church by going through the Lych Gate and up the macadamised path to the the south door.

I made it to the dry safety of the south porch without incident but I was considerably wetter than when I set out. It was the sort of rain that could find the slightest gap in one's defences so, despite my headgear, it had trickled, nay, flowed copiously, down my neck and, despite my mackintosh, effectively turned the lower part of my Cassock into the sort of flood plain that any self-respecting river would have been proud of. My feet were none too dry, either. I resigned myself to squelching in soggy and noisy discomfort through the forthcoming Mass. I divested myself of my ineffective waterproof layer and leaving it strewn over the stone benches in the porch entered the Church whilst consoling myself with the hope that in such weather my congregation would be small and just as anxious as I to get home to our respective warm dry firesides and hot luncheons.

I stepped into the Church and into warmth and dryness. I blessed my verger and sexton, Henry Providor3, who had obviously brought the heating plant back to life sometime after Matins. Just a few of the large brass electroliers had been switched on and in their comforting warm glow my Church looked cosy and inviting. I glanced towards the Altar and, sure enough, there was Henry kneeling at the rail in quiet, personal prayer – and there beside him was a figure in a wheelchair who made my heart sink.

The man in the chair was Miles Andrew Bellator, ex-soldier and survivor of a roadside IED in Afghanistan and scion of the family which owned most of my village. Well, I use the word 'survivor' in its loosest sense. Oh yes, the doctors had put his body back together, but they hadn't been able to tell his wife or his mother if there was still anybody in residence in that body which did not, and seemingly could not, respond to any stimulus of any sort. Miles just sat, sometimes he sat and gazed vacantly at some fixed point in front of himself and sometimes he sat and slept. He'd eat and drink if someone put food or liquid into his mouth, but he had to be looked after in every respect just as if he was a new born babe. That task fell to his wife and his mother and they had earned the respect of all who knew them by conscientiously carrying out that duty without ever uttering a word of complaint or seeming to fall out with each other. God alone knows what agonies they faced but their love for Miles was so obvious that they occupied a special place in the hearts of many of my parishioners and I knew that I was not alone in praying for them and for Miles. Henry always made a point of wheeling Miles to Mass on the most important Feasts of the year and also of looking after him throughout the service so that his two carers could concentrate on their own spiritual needs at those times. That Palm Sunday was obviously no exception so Miles sat and gazed, almost unblinkingly, at nothing in particular and I prepared myself to give Communion to someone who couldn't even say 'Amen' to the words of administration and never gave any sign that he knew what was being done to him. The only reason that I put the Wafer into his mouth and the Chalice to his lips was because before Miles left us and followed his ancestors into the army he had been a regular and believing member of my congregation - I didn't need to take anybody else's word for his belief for I personally knew it.

As I walked down the Nave Henry stood up from his devotions and came towards me. Squelch, squelch, squelch I went and Henry couldn't help himself but glance at my feet and smile.

“Still a trifle damp outside?” he asked in a jocular fashion.

“Oh, just a drop or two where it shouldn't be,” I replied in like kind.

“Get you into the Vestry. I've lit a fire in the grate in there and put your old slippers to warm so you can get out of those damp cloggers and say the service in comfort.”

I squelched into the Vestry and by the time Henry and the Altar boys joined me for the vesting and its prayers I felt much better about the upcoming service. One should never allow oneself to lulled into a false sense of security!

I'd just finished censing the Altar and had handed the thurible back to my thurifer, Tony Suffimen, to ritually cense me, my servers and the congregation when I became aware that Henry and several stalwart men of the parish were busy placing a ladder in front of the Rood screen against the Chancel arch. I glanced up but could see little from my position at the top of the Altar steps. I glanced back to Henry who made a sign for me to keep going so I turned back to the Altar and began the Prayer of Consecration. By the time I turned back and spoke the 'Draw near with Faith', the words of invitation, the ladder had gone and everyone had returned to their places, but seconds later as we all said the 'Lord I am not worthy' I noticed that water was dripping from the Chancel arch and coursing down the Rood screen and that the great violet swathed wooden Rood that usually hung from the arch was gone. Then I realised that even in that ancient solidly built Church with its massive thick wooden roof covered in stone tiles and its huge, thick walls I could here the rain pounding down.

I'd already made plain in my notices that I wasn't going to say the Angelus on that Palm Sunday so although I didn't hurry unduly through the Administration it seemed like no time at all before I pronounced the Blessing and the Dismissal and walked up the Nave to the Narthex end of the Church in order to say farewell to my parishioners as they left by the two opposing doors. There was no communal breaking of our fast in the Church Hall, either, for everyone just wanted to get safely home as soon as they could along roads that it was plain to see had begun to resemble rivers.

Henry and I tidied up the Church as quickly as we could then we too set out for our homes with Henry wheeling Miles as fast as he dared to in the prevailing conditions. As for me, I was once again soaked as I took the long way round back to the Vicarage. Wet already, I paused on the front step and just listened to the rain thrumming down and splashing off the already two inch deep standing water. I went inside and broke my fast with a good luncheon then I 'phoned round everybody and cancelled the services for the rest of the day. Later that afternoon I remembered the Rood that the men had taken down as a preventative measure lest its ancient hanging point had given way and it had fallen on some poor soul and damaged, or perhaps even killed, them. Once, in medieval times before the reformation, our Church had been graced by a solid gold, so the stories have it, Rood hanging from that very position – a cross said to have been found by one of Miles Bellator's crusading ancestors buried in the dirt atop some mountain in the Holy Land. Many simple people believed that that massive gold Cross could work miracles and for some centuries our little Church and village had done quite well from a small, and upmarket by all accounts, pilgrimage trade. The reformers stole our Cross as they rampaged through our Church smashing and looting everything they could. To this day the village has never forgiven them and if one mentions the reformation in these parts one is likely to be greeted with a frosty silence.

***

Holy Monday dawned just as dreich as Palm Sunday had. The rain was still relentlessly teeming down and the weather forecast gave no hint of a reprieve for some days. I did my duty and said every service of the day for it was, after all, Holy Week, and merely getting wet could not compare with the Passion of Our Lord. This was, after all, Passiontide (which lasts from Iudica Sunday – the fifth Sunday in Lent, also called Passion Sunday – to Holy Saturday) and we had veiled all our statues and crosses and pictures (but not, obviously, the Stations of the Cross) after Vespers on the Saturday before Passion Sunday4 and I'd prepared all the services well in advance in order to have time to spend with those who couldn't get to Church due to illness or infirmity or some other cause. In any event I soldiered on throughout that Holy Week ably assisted by Henry, my Altar boys and all those members of my congregation who put in so much of their own time to keep everything going and in tip-top condition.

All through that week it just kept raining. Invariably it was heavy and on numerous occasions plain torrential for hours on end. The village and the surrounding countryside were sodden and the floods were out all across the county, and over a substantial part of England, also. Good Friday came round all too quickly and having said the Liturgy of the Word, conducted the Veneration of the Cross and Administered the Communion of the Presanctified5 I and my Parishioners settled down to the Three Hours Agony – that year I remember distinctly that we used the the meditations on the Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross as the basis for the Vigil rather than the Prayers of the Stations of the Cross.

Just after three o'clock I had some hurried conversations with my departing congregation about the usually placid little stream that ran to the north of our village but despite what they told me about it being a raging torrent some thirty feet wide I was satisfied that the levee built by their ancestors along the southern bank of the stream would protect the village from flooding as it had done for hundreds of years. I broke my fast and ate an equally hurried snack before setting out once again that week to visit the far flung and the housebound of my Parish.

Black Saturday (Holy Saturday) dawned just as wet as the preceding seven days had been. in fact, wetter if anything. I said the Liturgy of the Word and led a vigil of private prayers which had been asked for by some of my parishioners before grabbing a hurried very small meal (even though it's a Fast Day I had to eat before sunset because the Liturgical Day starts at sunset and I had to celebrate the first Mass of Eastertide at mid-night and one should always celebrate fasting even if only technically) and then set out with the Sacrament and Chrism to take Viaticum to a parishioner who was not expected to last the night. Because of the floods it took me some time to reach him and even longer to get back to the village with the consequence that I arrived home in the almost dark of  mid-evening. I put the motor-car away and then went indoors and settled down for a short snooze in front of the fire in my study with the feeling that the Harrowing of Hades6 would probably have been easier than the drive I had just undertaken.

I allowed myself a scant half hour of rest then set out in full dark and very heavy rain for the Church. I doubted that Henry would have managed to start the customary fire on the patch of land just outside the Lych Gate which is kept for this purpose but I was surprised to find that he had done so and that a merry blaze was being sheltered by some sort of large metal roof that looked suspiciously like an old car bonnet (hood) perched on concrete fencing posts and that my procession of Altar Boys and Tony, my Thurifer, were already vested and in attendance. I dashed to the Vestry and made haste to catch up with them. Even though the Church was in complete darkness I knew as I left to return to the fire that I had a fairly large congregation waiting for me.

I blessed the Paschal Candle, and Daniel Levita, my Deacon, and I held it to the flames of the fire until it lit. Under an enormous old umbrella carried by the tallest of my Altar Boys Daniel then carried it very carefully up the path running with water towards the Church. We had just made it into the safety of the South porch when all of a sudden Henry, who was leading the procession, thrust open the inner door and yelled down the Nave:

“Run! Run! Get out of here fast. The water is in the Church! For God's sake, run!” whilst simultaneously switching on all the lights he could reach.

I glanced down the length of the Church and sure enough water was forcing its way in along the entire North wall – under the door, up through the heating vents and even through the Vestry door. I raced down the Nave against the throng struggling to get out and helped Henry grab Miles in his wheelchair, but I needn't have bothered because five or six sturdy youngsters grabbed him and the chair off us and passed it and its cargo down the Nave from one group of teenagers to the next as if it were no burden at all.

By this time we had to wade back to the South door but we made it and followed the throng as they, and the rest of the village, galloped, despite the mud, across the Churchyard and up to the Vicarage. As I gained the higher ground I looked back at the Church and was just in time to see the lights go out both there and in the rest of the village.

The floods had won.

***

The next couple of hours were spent organising four hundred and fifty odd souls into one stone-built Georgian Vicarage. I'd often thought that I lived in a great big barn of a place that was far too big for my needs and I'd equally often envied my colleagues in less well-off parishes who lived in more humble, but more convenient, abodes, but that night I found myself fervently wishing that my Vicarage had been built even more generously.

Reconnaissance parties ventured out every now and again and reported that as far as they could tell the levee in which I had placed so much trust had, in fact, given way almost due North of the Church and that the water, having swept through the village and done its damage was receding rapidly. By round about mid-night the Church was sitting above the draining waters and Henry, Daniel and I decided to go and see how much damage it had sustained. It was still raining but nowhere near as heavily as it had been.

We three trudged muddily down through my shrubbery and across God's acre into the South Porch. Miraculously, there on the shelf where Daniel had lodged it for safe-keeping during the evacuation stood the still lighted Paschal Candle. He picked it up and walked into the Church:

Lumen Christi,” he called out in the words of the Lumenarium for the first time as he advanced into the Nave.

Deo Gratias,” Henry and I and several other voices from behind me gave out in the ancient reply.

Surprised by those other voices I turned round and found that we three oldsters had been followed by the torch-carrying young bloods of the village who obviously were not going to allow themselves to be outdone in the courage stakes by us. I rapidly swivelled my attention back to Daniel and followed him down the Nave

Lumen Christi,” came Daniel's voice from halfway down.

Deo Gratias,” Henry and I and now many more voices sang back at him.

Attracted by the wavering torch lights and curious about what their Priest could possibly be up to in a flooded Church many more of my parishioners had followed us to the Church.

Lumen Christi,” Daniel called out for the third and final time from the bottom of the Chancel steps.

Deo Gratias,” I and my brave congregation roared back at him.

From somewhere Henry produced small candles and, as custom dictates, he and Daniel lit them from the Paschal Candle and gave one to each person present. Even Miles, who had been hauled back into Church, got one placed in his hand which was carefully closed over it beneath the paper drip-catcher. He registered nothing but just gazed off into space. I offered up a silent prayer for his release.

The light of all the candles revealed the devastation and the mud and the dirt, but the Altar standing at the top of its steps in the Sanctuary was untouched and undefiled – the flood had not risen that high. In wonderment I walked up to it and touched it. Daniel, Henry and Tony came up and placed lit candles on it. Henry touched me on the arm and indicated that I should turn round so I did. The Lumenarium over, all I could see was a sea of little, flickering points of light and all I could hear was my congregation singing that great Easter Hymn 'Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia' – the first 'Alleluia' after Lent - a spontaneous Exsultet if you will.

I don't know where Henry found the wine or the wafers or the clean water but I celebrated the Eucharist at that clean Altar in my devastated Church for a congregation that I love. I kept it brief by cutting out all that I am allowed to and soon I was turning to them and uttering the words of The Invitation. They came forward to the Altar rail just as if everything was as normal to receive the Sacrament, and many knelt down in the mud to do so though I never asked that of them. Towards the end the youngsters brought Miles forward still clutching his candle. I placed a Wafer between his lips and he obediently sucked it in and chewed and swallowed. I put the Chalice to his lips and he drank. His helpers took him to one side and then knelt to receive their own Communion.

They were the last and they remained at the Altar rail and shone their torches forward so that I could really see what I was doing as I finished the service (and offered up again a fervent and private prayer for Miles). Finally, I turned to give the blessing and as I did so there was a loud rumbling sound and a piece of plaster slid down the wall and pushed against Miles' wheelchair knocking him out of it and onto the ancient tiled floor.

The medieval tiles somehow broke open and Miles slid, rather than fell, into the opening that had been revealed. We all stood still for just a split second and then as one we rushed over to get Miles up. As we hauled him out of the little hole we all heard him say:

“That hurt. Where am I?”

Stunned, we could do nothing but look at him as he slumped in his righted chair moaning slightly.

“Where am I?” he clearly asked, again.

That time he had said it loud enough to be heard right down the Nave. His mother and his wife came rushing up to him with disbelief written clearly across their faces.

“Where am I?” he asked for a third time lifting his head and looking around him. His eyes rested on my face. “Hello Padre, where am I and why are you here?”

“You're in Church, Miles,” I said as gently as I could, “Where else would you be for the Easter Vigil?”

I smiled at him and he tentatively smiled back.

Just then two of the teenagers who had been examining the hole that Miles had ended up in called out in excitement:

“Come and look at this!” they cried as they tried to haul a great gleaming gold Cross out from under the ancient tiles, “This is what Miles landed on!”

***

Yes, yes, it was indeed the Bellator Cross, but it's not solid gold, it's actually hollow and just nine pounds in weight. It hangs today exactly where it ought to – above the Rood Screen in my lovely old Church deep in the heart of rural England. It hangs complete with the dent made in it by Miles' head as he fell onto it just those few Easters ago. Many in my congregation, and others elsewhere, believe that Miles' recovery was just the first of its modern miracles. I don't know; maybe he had to be hit on the head to get his wits back; maybe he had to be hit on the head by a Cross to get his wits back; maybe he had to be hit on the head by that Cross to get his wits back. All I know is that it was that Cross at Easter in my Church at Mass just after I had offered up a fervent prayer for him and if that's not a miracle then I don't know what is.

As is customary I am going to Christen his third child at the Easter Vigil this year. He and his wife live happily up at the Manor and his mother lives in the Dower House. They are all regular attenders at Church.

***

Happy Easter.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

Let me now give you the blessing that I never said on that fateful Easter Sunday morn: "The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the Blood of the Eternal Covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen."

Ite, missa est.

 

Footnotes:

On the title:

"Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”" – Julius  Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224, William Shakespeare.

  1. Saint John of Damascus (c. AD 645 or 676 to 4 December 749) was "The first outstanding scholar to enter the field of polemic against the Moslem was John of Damascus. He is known to history as the most honoured of the later theologians of the Greek Church. ... His great dogmatic work on the Sources of Knowledge includes an important section 'Concerning Heresies,' and it is one chapter under this heading that deals with Moslems (De Haeresibus. See Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 94, 1864, cols 763-73. Also An English translation by the Reverend John W. Voorhis appeared in 'The Moslem World' for October 1954, pp. 392-398). The topics the author selected and the arguments he used have been constantly repeated by similar champions from the eighth century to the twentieth. Throughout all his controversial work John of Damascus displays a thorough knowledge of Islam. Fully at home in the Arabic tongue, he often cites the Koran word for word and shows his familiarity with the Hadith, or traditions. ... It is characteristic, in fact, of all the earlier polemic, during the age when Islam and Christendom were in close touch, that the Christian advocate is in full control of his material and knows at first hand what he is talking about." (Adapted from 'The Christian Approach to the Moslems' by James Thayer Addison, p.26f.) Saint John was also a Syrian monk and priest who was born and raised in Damascus and died at his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. He was a polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music. He wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed Hymns which are still used liturgically in Christian practice throughout the world. He is considered "the last of the Fathers" of the Eastern Orthodox church and is best known for his strong defence of icons. The Western Church regards him as a Doctor of the Church and he is often referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption due to his writings on the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God.

  2. Henry Providor, my Verger and Sexton, was introduced to you in my last little story about my village and its Church. You can find that story here at New English Review.

  3. It has been the custom of the Western Church, at least in modern times (from the 17th Century forward), to veil the crosses and the images of the Saints from the fifth Sunday of Lent until Easter. This has been, and ought to continue to be, one of the defining characteristics of the season of Passiontide.

In many churches throughout the West, Crosses and statues are veiled now and will remain veiled for two full weeks. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes this custom as follows: “Before Vespers of Saturday preceding Passion Sunday [i.e. the fifth Sunday of Lent] the crosses, statues, and pictures of our Lord and of the Saints on the Altar and throughout the Church, with the sole exception of the Crosses and pictures of the Way of the Cross, are to be covered with a violet veil, not translucent, nor in any way ornamented. The Crosses remain covered until after the solemn denudation of the principal Crucifix on Good Friday. The statues and pictures retain their covering, no matter what Feast may occur, until the Gloria in Excelsis of Holy Saturday.” However, it is noted that the statue of St. Joseph may remain uncovered, if outside the Sanctuary, during the month of March, which is dedicated to his honour.

Why does the Church veil the Cross in these final days of Lent, a time when she is most intent on meditating upon the Lord's dolorous passion? There are three different ways of looking at this issue.

  1. The Mystical Interpretation: 

Abbot Gueranger enlightens us with a mystical interpretation of the Gospel which, in former times, was read on this Sunday: As Christ hid himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities (John 8:59), so now he is hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of his passion. “The presentiment of that awful hour [of our Saviour’s passion] leads the afflicted mother [the Church] to veil the image of her Jesus: the Cross is hidden from the eyes of the faithful. The statues of the Saints, too, are covered; for it is but just that, if the glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servant should not appear. "

  1. The good Abbot goes further: “The interpreters of the liturgy tell us that this ceremony of veiling the crucifix during Passiontide, expresses the humiliation to which our Saviour subjected Himself, of hiding Himself when the Jews threatened to stone Him, as is related in the Gospel of Passion Sunday [John 8:46-59, They took up stones therefore to cast at him. But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:59)]. The Church begins this solemn rite with the Vespers of the Saturday before Passion Sunday.”

  2. The Spiritual Interpretation:

    Dom Gueranger continues and directs us to acts of devotion for the Cross: “Twice during the course of the year, that is, on the feasts of its Invention and Exaltation, this sacred Wood will be offered to us that we may honour it as the trophy of our Jesus’ victory; but now, it speaks to us but of His sufferings, it brings with it no other idea but that of His humiliation.”

  3. Considering that, in the season of our Lord’s passion, all the strength of our devotion should be directed to the Cross of Christ, we may be surprised that the images of the Cross are to be covered in these days. However, when we recognize that we now venerate the Cross not so much as an emblem of victory (as in the Triumph of the Cross) but as an instrument of  humiliation and suffering, we will soon understand the spiritual realities which are conveyed through the covering of the crosses.

  4. In his passion, our Saviour’s divinity was almost totally eclipsed, so great was his suffering. Likewise, even his humanity was obscured – so much so that he could say through his prophet: I am a worm and no man (Psalm 21:7). His face and whole body were so disfigured by the blows and scourges that our Jesus was scarcely recognizable! Thus, the wounds he endured hid both is divinity and his humanity. For this reason we veil the crosses in these final days of Lent - hiding our Saviour under the sad purple cloth.
     
  5. The Historical Interpretation:

    Reproduced here is the historical study offered by Fr. Edward McNamara, Professor of Liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University (taken from Zenit):

“It 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.’ "

  1. Father McNamara goes on to say: “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 Bishops' Ceremonial of the 17th century.”

  2. There is a further possibility:

    It may be possible that the Church covers the images of the Cross during these days, for the same reason that she refrains from offering the Sacrifice of the Mass on Good Friday. Namely, in this time in which we mystically enter into the historical realities of Jesus’ final days, it is not fitting to have the image, sign or sacrament of the Cross presented to the faithful.
  • Indeed, St. Thomas tells us that “the figure ceases on the advent of the reality. But this    sacrament [i.e. the Eucharist] is a figure and a representation of our Lord's Passion, as stated above. And therefore on the day on which our Lord's Passion is recalled as it was really accomplished, this sacrament is not consecrated.” [Summa Theologica III, q.83, a.2, ad 2 (http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP.html).] In an analogous way, it is fitting that, as the Liturgical year recalls the events leading up to the Crucifixion, the Church should hide the effigies of the Cross from the vision of her faithful.
  1. The Eucharist is never said on Good Friday or Holy Saturday and Wafers and Wine Sanctified at Mass on Maundy Thursday are used. The Communion Service  is done according to a rite based on that of the final part of Mass, beginning with the Our Father, but omitting the ceremony of 'Breaking of the Bread' and its related chant, the Agnus Dei and the Canon of the Mass is omitted. The priest and people then depart in silence or keep silence, and the Altar Cloth is removed to leave the altar bare except for the Cross for the Veneration and two or four candlesticks.

  2. In Eastern Orthodoxy this day, known as Holy and Great Saturday, is also called The Great Sabbath since it is on this day that Christ 'rested' physically in the tomb. But it is also believed that it was on this day he performed in Spirit the Harrowing of Hades and raised up to Paradise those who had been held captive there. In the Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, this day is known as Joyous Saturday.


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