This Sunday, April 3rd, 2022, will be the Fifth Sunday in Lent this year: the Sunday known, in the traditional Western ecclesiastical calendar, as Passion Sunday, and the start of the “sub-season” within Lent known as Passiontide. This, the last fortnight – that is to say, the last two weeks – of Lent, marks a shift in the focus of our Lenten observance.
The first three weeks of Lent were focused on self-examination, self-awareness of our own sinfulness, and repentance. Last Sunday was Refection (or Refreshment) Sunday, also known as Laetare Sunday or Rose Sunday, a brief lightening of the somber mood of most of Lent. In this, the final two weeks of Lent, the focus shifts – as the name Passion Sunday suggests – from self-awareness of our own sinfulness, to contemplation of its cure: the Passion of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. As one commentator aptly puts it,
“Today is called Passion Sunday, because the services begin to relate the story of our Lord’s sufferings and death. The Atonement is is preeminently the theme of this day. Christ is exhibited as our great High Priest; and from now until Easter, the Lamb of God, dumb before his shearers, is the engrossing object of wonder, of worship, and of love” (Rt. Rev. A. Cleveland Coxe: Thoughts on the Services, 1890).
In the traditional liturgical calendar preserved in the Book of Common Prayer 1928 and in our ecclesiastical jurisdiction, Passiontide is the period of Lent that commemorates the increasing revelation of Christ’s divinity and His movement toward Jerusalem – which of course culminates in Palm Sunday, and the events of Holy Week. The heightened solemnity of Passiontide is reflected, visually and liturgically, in the veiling of crosses from Passion Sunday until the Paschal Vigil (Great Vigil of Easter) on the night of Holy Saturday.
The veiling of crosses and other images has at least two significances: one is a “fasting of the eyes,” in which we give up the joy of seeing the beauty of familiar, sacred images, and which will progress to its fullest form with the Stripping of the Altar at the evening liturgy on Maundy Thursday. The other is shrouding — as in a death-shroud. Here again, the imagery is twofold, representing both the death of Christ upon the Cross of Calvary, on Good Friday, and also our own death to sin in the repentance of Lent, as we look forward to putting on new life in Christ at Easter.
As a more modern commentator puts it, “The covering of sacred images is a beautiful custom that can perhaps lead us to greater contemplation as we walk with Jesus through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Our eyes are not drawn away to other objects and we can turn our focus to the altar and inward to contemplate Christ.”
Another aid to such contemplation is the devotion known as The Stations of the Cross, which we will continue to pray on all Fridays of Lent (including Good Friday), at five o’clock in the afternoon, here in the church. You are warmly invited to join us!
May God grant you a holy and blessed Passiontide.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Fr. Tom Harbold