Lenten Reflection: “Why…?”

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment


We start to ask that question at around the age of two. Ideally, we never stop asking it.

When people come to St. Luke’s, there is a lot to ask, “Why…?” about. We build and grow our community by sharing our heritage of prayer, thought, and practice with everyone who asks, “Why…?” Sometimes we do that sharing in formal ways–sermons; Sunday School; adult education classes, and so on. We share our knowledge informally as well, by whispered questions during the Eucharist; over coffee after the service; and in emails and Facebook conversations as the thoughts occur to us.
Many “Why…?” questions about St. Luke’s worship and customs have answers that span centuries. A practice can have a Scriptural or early church foundation; roots in a medieval practice; revision in the 20th century liturgical renewal movement; and logistical reasons given our church’s physical structure. There is no such thing as a stupid question, and if you have a question, ask it.

All this is prelude to the question I was asked: “Why do we cover images in Lent, and make other changes in our worship?”

For most of the Church’s existence, most Christians were illiterate.  Sculptures, paintings, and woven textiles illustrated the beliefs and history of the Christian faith. The cycle of changing colors and tones of chant conveyed the changing of seasons in the year. Covering the images in the church was a very clear sign to all that Lent had begun. The English Church traditionally covered all images for all of Lent. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Roman Catholic Church in most places limited the veiling to the fifth week of Lent and Holy Week.

Covering images is a way of “fasting” for the senses, and gives an opportunity to focus on inward worship. We use sackcloth for vestments and veils, rather than purple, because sackcloth is described as the clothing of repentance throughout Hebrew Scripture.  The additional fabric ornamentations are of oxblood—the color of dried blood, foreshadowing Holy Week, when our vestments change to that color as well.

David Shuler has an excellent explanation of the change in our music styles during Lent, as well. It’s in the bulletin every week during Lent, and the full effect of pruning back our music is most apparent at its end–in the huge outburst of song and organ during the Easter Vigil. A very subtle change in our liturgy shows up in the procession of the First Sunday in Lent—we make left-hand turns in procession, unlike the rest of the year. The chants for the Passion Gospels are unique to Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday is outright jarring, with the lament of Psalm 22 undergirding it. The tones of the Solemn Collects sung on Good Friday are only used on that day.

In these ways, the solemn and penitential nature of Lent is laid out in ways that speak to the eye, ear, and heart.

Finally, do engage in the liturgies of Lent with an open eye and mind. Do ask questions, and share what you learn.

– Mary O’Shaughnessy

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§ One Response to Lenten Reflection: “Why…?”

  • Chris Phillips says:

    Mary – thanks for this post. It’s helpful to know what to look for in Lent. Even in this more spare season, there’s lots of nuance. I’m not sure what you mean about left hand turns? I never noticed a change in the procession during Lent.

    We also use difference incense during Lent, I think.

    I’d never thought about how the church’s changing colors would speak to people who were illiterate. So interesting.

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