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Standing at the foot of the cross

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

While many people are aware of the season of Lent, perhaps fewer are aware of the particular part of this season to which I look forward each year - Passiontide. Beginning with the fifth Sunday in Lent, Passiontide invites us to enter even more deeply into our contemplation of Christ's journey towards Jerusalem. Our Lenten array takes on a more foreboding impact within our worship spaces as icons, crosses and other decorations are veiled in purple. The reredos (a carved, image-laden panel behind the altar) in my previous church would be closed; we would be left with only a memory of the gilded images of the Annunciation and the Nativity as they were concealed by the plain and sombre doors. Even at my home altar, the icon of Christ and small wooden cross are now veiled as I am reminded each day, as I enter my studio, to set my focus towards Jerusalem (cf. Luke 9:53) as we enter into the season of Christ's passion.

The origin of veiling as a Lenten practice are varied, some pointing to the account of Jesus taking himself from view in John 8:59: “But Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple”. There were medieval traditions of covering the altar from view with a purple cloth, and some have seen the similarities to a death shroud, as statues are also veiled in purple. For me, the practice links directly with my practice as an iconographer.

First, my passion for iconography stems (at least in part) from the desire to find ways to represent our theology and spirituality by visual means. The tradition of veiling in Passiontide (taken together with so many of our liturgical traditions throughout Holy Week) is one of the most visually-arresting statements of our beliefs surrounding the events we shall recall over the next fortnight. We can scarcely miss the drama of walking into a familiar space and seeing it shrouded in the sombre fabric. The world is about to change. Something significant is about to take place. Brace yourselves. So much is intimated in this poignant act.

Secondly, I find myself also taking note of a deep contradiction as I commit to working as a full-time iconographer. I can scarcely cover all my icons for the next two weeks and simply call Passiontide an extended holiday! In my studio, therefore, just as my icon of Christ at the altar is veiled, so I am working on painting another icon of Christ as part of my latest commission. Christ is veiled. Christ is fully present.

This paradox is surely a familiar one for our journey of faith. There are those times, for each of us, when Christ seems so totally absent, times when we do not know which way to turn. Yet, we seek God's face nonetheless, summoning even a mustard seed's worth of faith to trust that Christ is, as He always promised, still with us. So it is with our keeping of this season of Passiontide. Even when Christ seems most hidden or distant, His salvific work brings Him closer than ever towards us.

We reflect on Christ hiding himself, we enter into the mysteries of the Last Supper, the desolation of the Cross and descent of Holy Saturday. Yet even so, we live in the paradox of knowing that Easter joy is assured. Even in this most poignant of seasons, the assurance of our salvation remains.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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