After Lent’s lighter moment on its 4th Sunday, things really start to ramp up on the 5th Sunday. This is nicknamed Passion Sunday, even the Passion Gospel itself is not read on this day.
As I introduced this day in a previous post, it is an anticipation of Palm Sunday. A noteworthy feature of the traditional lectionary was that major Sunday commemorations tended to have a follow-up Sunday to further explicate its meaning, but in the case of Palm Sunday, that follow-up had to be a preview Sunday instead. Originally, the Gospel was Jesus’ speech about “before Abraham was, I am” – asserting his divinity. This was paired with a lesson from Hebrews about his priestly sacrifice, so the theological import of his death on the Cross would be better appreciated on the following Sunday. The modern calendar carries out a similar function using the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ saying that “the son of man must be lifted up,” and the parable of the wicked tenants. The traditional Collect was similar to those for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays, with a thematic similarity to the Collect for Good Friday, making it serve as another “preview” of the Passion to come. The modern Collect, however, is a transfer from what was originally an Eastertide Collect, asking God to fix our hearts where true joy is to be found, despite our unruly wills and affections. As far as I can see (thus far), this somewhat weakens the traditional Passion Sunday function.
One of the old traditions that typically began with this day is the covering, or veiling, of images in the church building. All the statues, icons, even crucifixes, would have some sort of shroud or veil obscuring them. In past days where church buildings were beautifully and vividly decked with visual splendor, this would have been a stark sight to behold. On one level this tradition is easy to understand as an anticipation of the starkness of Holy Week: the mourning of Christ’s death on account of our sins, the injustice of his conviction, is aptly expressed in the covering of images that normally bring us joy.
But there are also connections to the liturgy of Passion Sunday itself that probably play a role in this. The traditional Gradual, from Psalm 143, contains the verse
Hear me, O Lord, and that soon, for my spirit waxeth faint: * hide not thy face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit.
– a plea that is given an extra layer of personal devotion when the visual depictions of God and his Saints are literally hidden from your face that morning!
The traditional Epistle, from Hebrews 9, also contains a thematic link. Starting in verse 11, “CHRIST being come an High Priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands; that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves; but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” It is fitting, therefore, to cover all the things in the church “made with hands”, to remind people that these images are merely images of the Truth to whom they must ultimately look.
Finally, and perhaps most bluntly, the traditional Gospel for the 5th Sunday ends with the Jews wanting to stone Jesus for claiming equality with God, “but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” Sure enough, as you look around the room back then, Jesus has hidden himself; his images are covered. Suddenly you find yourself in the place of those who would kill Christ – he is hidden from you. This is very much an anticipation, in tone, of the final rejection of Christ on the following Sunday: “Crucify him!”
Chances are, however, that your church building is not adorned with wall-to-wall pictures, icons, artwork, and lined with alcoves with statues of our Lord and our Lady and the Saints. Directly appropriating that old tradition may not have anywhere near the usual impact in many church buildings today. So what might we do instead?
- put a veil over the altar cross
- print a service bulletin with no cover art
- silence some or all of the instruments
Be creative! How else might you ratchet up the experience of Lent?