Sunday, March 29, 2009

Covering the statues

Today is Passion Sunday in the traditional Latin Rite, and I noticed that our parish follows the venerable tradition of covering the representations of the Crucifix, of Jesus and of other holy figures with a purple cloth, from today until the Easter Vigil.  It seems contradictory at first to conceal the signs of the Passion during the very time in which we commemorate it, not only in the liturgy but also in devotional practices, such as watching Passion plays and films, or praying the Stations of the Cross. Of course, it makes sense to remind ourselves that Jesus was "taken from us," that human power and fear occulted God.  Jesus himself experienced that occultation; as a churchgoer described to me today, bearing the full burden of sin on his human body brought about such a deep contradiction between the divine and human natures that it could only mean death for the One bearing it.  In covering the statues, we remind ourselves that the "real" Passion was as much about the inner experience of abandonment and spiritual deprivation, as it was about physical suffering and death.

Every year, Lent is a great burden to me.  Perhaps this is because I wore myself out from many years of harsh devotional practices and unreflected beliefs when I was younger.  Even then, my "hard on myself" wasn't really:  I couldn't take fasting without getting dizzy and fainting, for example.  But in some sense, this kind of Lent -- fasts and haircloth and vigils and "let's increase our self-hatred by watching Jesus getting beaten up" -- is like the statues before they are covered.  It's a way to "do something," to make oneself feel holy.  Like jogging or going on a diet is healthy for one's body, ascetic and devotional practices can be healthy and good for the soul.  Nevertheless, just as healthy diet doesn't always prevent illness, prayer and self-deprivation don't always protect one from the "shadow of death" (today's Tract was from Ps. 23), that is, the experience of separation from God.  Just as sickness is more painful for a generally healthy person, deprivation of Divine light is yet more painful for someone who once knew God, or felt as if she had known God.  How much easier it would be if one had no experience of God whatsoever!  But this is not how things are.