Veiling in the Liturgy

Jake Tawney - Veiling


I. Veiling and Truth

Theologian Han Urs Von Balthasar once wrote, “We thus [understand] truth as the unveiledness, uncoveredness, disclosedness, and unconcealment of being …. Unveiledness is an absolute property inherent in being as such” (Theo-Logic I, page 37).

For von Balthasar, being (which is convertible with truth) is essentially mystery. There is an incommunicable core in everything that exists. No matter how deeply we try to understand an object, we will never exhaust the mystery that lies at its center. Two opposite errors can occur when we come face-to-face with this mystery. On the one hand, we can abandon our pursuit of truth to the realm of the “unknowable.” Such is the attitude of those who look at the Trinity and leave it at, “Well, it’s a mystery, so you can’t understand it.” On the other hand, we can treat the object as a puzzle that can and will be solved. Both errors ignore that the mystery of the object is meant to be entered into, and both errors deprive us of truth. In the first case, when we give up the pursuit in the face of the unfathomable mystery, we fail to be engulfed in that very same mystery, and as such, we deprive ourselves of an infinite amount of understanding. In the second case, when we treat truth as a puzzle will ignore the very essence of the object, and thus we also exclude an infinite amount of understanding.

Look at it this way. Truth is a cavern that is infinitely deep and infinitely complex. The first mistake would be to say, “Because I can never know all the ins and outs, I won’t even enter the cavern.” The second mistake says, “I will explore the cavern only to the first dead end and assume that I know it all.” Both subjects miss the great infinity that is the cavern. Only the subject who both recognizes the infinite depth of the truth and being and enters into that mystery will come to know the very essence of the object. This is the great paradox: only in recognizing that the object can never be fully known can a subject come to know the truth of the object.

This mystery that is the essence of being is most properly described as a veil. A veil is something different from a wall and a window. In the case of a wall, the subject recognizes that there is a limit to the knowledge one can have of an object, but the wall prohibits the subject from gaining any real vision of the object. In the case of the window, the subject ignores mystery all together and has the impression that “what you see is what you get.” A veil is something altogether different. The purpose of a veil is to unveil. This is the very definition of mystery. This is why von Balthasar says that “unveiledness is an absolute property in being as such.”

Being exists for the purpose of unveiling. When we allow truth to unveil itself, we can enter into the mystery of truth, we can receive truth. The aforementioned paradox can now be stated from the point of view of the truth itself: in communicating truth to a subject truth communicates it own incommunicability.

“To be sure, truth as a whole is in principle unveiled (because all truth is truth), yet it remains infinitely transcendent and veiled in its totality. For this very reason, it awakens in the knower a yearning for more” (Theo-Logic I, page 40).

It is a sure sign of the subject’s awareness of mystery when the subject not only recognizes the cliche, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” but also enters into the depth of the unknown with a deeper yearning to know more truth. This unquenchable yearning can only be matched by the incommunicability of truth itself.

The essence of mystery is found precisely in this cosmic dance between the object’s immanence and transcendence. “Rationality, taken in its comprehensive sense, thus entails two things at once: certainty of truly possessing some being as it in fact is – within a totality of being that, while disclosed in principle, in concreto always remains transcendent” (Theo-Logic I, page 41).

When we consider this from the perspective of God’s relationship with man we find the perfection of this mystery. If we first consider ourselves as subjects before God, then God stands cloaked in a mystery more perfect than the mystery of any created being. This means two things. First, if it is true that we can never fully know created truth, all the more so does this hold for our knowledge of God. Second, and more importantly, because the depth of mystery is infinitely deeper than that of created truth, we can enter infinitely deeper into His truth than we can with other objects; but such knowledge requires a greater surrender to His mystery than is required when we approach created being. In other words, the infinite depth of His mystery does not provide us with less knowledge, but with more. Precisely because He is more perfectly veiled to us, His being is more capable of being unveiled.

However, if we consider God as the subject and man as the object, we find that He is able to completely penetrate our mystery. “All things stand completely unveiled before the divine knowledge, and by that same knowledge they are measured” (Theo-Logic I, page 56).

Before we begin our discussion of the Sacred Liturgy, let us reiterate the main points. (1) All being is inherently veiled in mystery, and God stands before us as the most veiled. (2) Because a veil is always at the service of an unveiling, the veil allows a more perfect knowledge of the veiled than would be possible in the absence of veiling. These two principles are at the heart of veiling in the Liturgy.

II. Veiling in the Liturgy

The Liturgy is the encounter between God and man. Nowhere is the cosmic dance between immanence and transcendence more clear than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Moreover, the principal of sacramentality insists that external manifestations properly reflect internal realities (and simultaneously effect the internal realities). If this is true, then we would expect the Liturgy to employ a physical veiling to reflect the veiling that is present in the inherent mystery of the Mass. We would also expect that this physical veiling perform the function of a veil, that it would serve to disclose more of the reality than would be possible with the absence of the veil.

In his book The Heresy of Formlessness, Martin Mosebach has a chapter titled “Revelation through Veiling in the Old Roman Catholic Liturgy.” In this chapter he makes the aforementioned point explicit: to veil something is to reveal it. According to Mosebach:

“Veiling … becomes a visible sign of the nimbus of grace and holiness that has become invisible to human eyes. Veiling, in the liturgy, is the halo that is by nature appropriate to the sacred vessels and their even more sacred contents … Veiling, in the liturgy, is not intended to withdraw some object from view, to make a mystery out of it, or to conceal its appearance. The appearance of the veiled things is common knowledge anyway. But their outward appearance tells us nothing about their real nature. It is the veil that indicates this” (Heresy of Formlessness, page 172).

We are now prepared to investigate the various forms of veiling that occur within the context of the Liturgy. The first and most obvious is the accidents in the sacred species themselves. As the physical body of Jesus veiled His divinity (and recall that it is precisely the veil that allowed us to see more of His divinity), so too is it with the accidents of bread and wine in the most Holy Eucharist. Mosebach expresses it this way: “If one draws this veil aside, and the veils that lie behind it, like peeling an onion, and penetrates to the core of the mystery, one is still confronted with a veil: the Host itself is a veil” (Heresy of Formlessness, page 172).

Nonetheless, our finite intelligence is often incapable of “seeing” past the accidents, and thus the tabernacle itself provides a veil for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Having the sacred elements within the veiled walls of a tabernacle allows us to transcend the accidents of bread and wine and to “see” more of the reality of Christ that is contained within. Indeed, many old sanctuaries still have an actual veil that is drawn over the tabernacle itself.

While the traditional argument against the use of glass chalices is based on their break-ability (and rightfully so), the veiling of the sacred species provides another argument. In a glass chalice, the accidents of the wine take center stage over the reality of the blood. In veiling the precious blood within a metal chalice, those viewing the chalice are better able to grasp the transcendent reality that is the blood of Christ. To provide another level of veiling (as in Mosebach’s analogy of the onion) many churches still employ the veil over the chalice as well as the pall that sits on top of the chalice. (While we are mentioning sacred vessels, in the extraordinary form of the rite, there is also the well choreographed “hiding of the paten” by the subdeacon.) Of course, there are other theological significances to these uses, but certainly the concept of veiling is one appropriate level of interpretation.

In the extraordinary form of the rite, the priest faces with the people (rather than towards the people) when consecrating the elements during the Eucharistic Canon. While the theology behind such an orientation is rightfully that of the priest leading the pilgrim people of God on their way to heaven, there is an added advantage of veiling the sacred actions. Mosebach points out that “the celebrants’ backs, clothed in vestments, also formed a wall in front of the sacrificial action” (Heresy of Formlessness, page 165). In the Eastern rites we have the iconostasis, and in medieval Western churches we find “rood-screens,” both of which serve the same purpose. In the absence of the screen and the iconostasis, the actual vestments of the priest serves the same purpose – all the more reason why the vestments should be of the highest quality. In not being able to “see” what the priest is doing until the Sacrament has been confected, the faithful are better able to “see” the reality of the Sacrifice on Calvary. (As a side note, the rubrics for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite presume that the priest is facing with the people. It is a sad reality that this orientation is now an exception rather than the norm. However, even with a versus populum orientation, the priest can take the lead of Pope Benedict XVI in employing an altar arrangement that uses six candlesticks and a center crucifix which can help to provide the same sort of separation between the laity and the priest’s sacrificial actions.)

While Mosebach explains how the vestments of the priest help to veil the sacred actions involved in the Eucharistic Canon, we should note that the vestments also provide a veil over the priest himself allowing the faithful to better view him as standing in persona Christi. The same veiling of the priest happens in the confessional when a screen separates the penitent from the priest; in confessing his sins to a priest who is veiled behind a screen, the penitent is better able to see Christ in the priest.

The use of incense, drawing from the Book of Revelation, signifies our prayers being lifted up to heaven. However, much like the cloud that engulfed the Mountain of the Transfiguration, the cloud of incense engulfs the altar. There are even times when the incense is so thick that the altar appears blurred, a blur that touches nearly every sense in the human body. It provides a physical cloak of mystery while simultaneously giving the mystery a vehicle to transport the sacrifice up to the Father.

The concept of veiling can even be applied to the schola cantorum (i.e., choir) when they are placed in a loft behind the congregation. When the melodies of the schola resonate through the sacred architecture, particularly when the music is the music of the Church (Gregorian Chant), the congregation rightly senses that these notes come not from man but from the angelic choirs of heaven. If the choir is positioned within the sight of the congregation, the veil is not present and the people begin to think that the music is of man’s own creative endeavors.

During Passiontide (Holy Week) the veils in the Liturgy become even more noticeable. First, during the entire week, the statues and crucifixes are literally to be covered over with veils. The Church even suggests that the crucifixes in our homes be covered during this most solemn of weeks. Second, at the conclusion of Holy Thursday the priest processes with the Blessed Sacrament covered beneath the humeral veil, completely out of site until its reposition in a side altar. Finally, who can forget the dramatic veiling and unveiling of the Holy Cross during the Good Friday Liturgy, the cross that is then venerated by the faithful.

“Here the purpose of the veiling was not to withdraw the cross from sight; it was so that the cross would be treated like the real Cross; from being a devotional object, a cultic object, a sacred symbol, it would once again become the real instrument of torture on which Christ dies. Thus we see that the veiling of the crosses is intended only to stress the historical nature of the work of Redemption, just as the name of Pontius Pilate – that modestly successful provincial administrator – as used in the Creed; it speaks of a real death on a real cross in a concrete place at a precisely identifiable hour of world history” (Heresy of Formlessness, page 170).

At the other end of Holy Week is the corresponding procession of the Easter candle. The deacon stops three times with the candle in the same way that he stopped three times with the Good Friday cross. At the Easter Vigil, it is darkness itself that provides the veil over the entire Church (seen here both as the universal reality and the specific building housing the liturgy). The light of Christ, spread throughout the congregation, removes the darkness, which in itself is a profound action of unveiling.

The final example of veiling in the Liturgy is the Latin language, but even more so the silence that accompanies the use of the language. The reality of the Mass is so sacred, so mysterious, and so ineffable, that we must borrow a sacred language in order to even begin to express it. When the vernacular is used it gives the impression that these mysteries are understandable, dissectible, and subject to human description and interpretation. The use of a sacred language emphasizes the inherent mystery of the Mass. It should be noted that, until recently, the history of our faith (even going back to pre-Christian Judaism) has always sensed the need for a sacred language, a language set aside (literally “consecrated”) for liturgical use. Only in the modern Catholic parish has the use of a sacred language been abolished.

The core of the Eucharistic mystery, though, cannot be expressed even by Latin. Thus, there is great merit in a silent recitation of the Canon. Much like the ad orientem posture of the priest, the silent canon has now become the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, if God speaks to us in silence, it is appropriate that we should speak his most sacred words back to him in silence. There is nothing that will more rapidly reveal the truth of the consecration that seeing it done beneath the veil of silence, a silence that is pierced by the dramatic consecration bells proclaiming “Mysterium Fidei!”

There are two points with which to close. First, it should be noted that the veiling that is inherent to the Liturgy (in all the Christian rites) is rapidly being discouraged and in some cases even eliminated in modernity. The misinformed theology as of late suggests that any veiling is an attempt to withhold truth from the laity – it claims that the laity have the right to see and hear everything that occurs in the Mass. To promote this line of thought is to completely misunderstand the purpose of veiling, which is, as we began with, to disclose more of reality rather than less. Plagued with liturgies that have fallen into this error, it is no wonder that the vast majority of Catholics have little understanding of the nature and purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Second, in pointing out the various examples of veiling in the liturgy, we would be remiss if we were to close without mentioning the chapel veil that the woman put on when entering the church. Such a beautiful practice has been desecrated by an agenda that would have us believe that wearing a veil is a sign of oppression. If we place the chapel veil in the proper context of the Liturgy we come to quite an opposite conclusion. What do we veil in the Liturgy if not the most sacred objects? We veil as a sign of the inherent mystery of the reality behind the veil. We veil so as to unveil the mystery. Why then is it the woman who is veiled? First, the woman is the model of Church (as pointed out by Saint Paul), and the Church is the mystical body of Christ. Much like the Eucharistic body of Christ is veiled under various layers, so too is the Church, and the woman represents Church. Second, it is the woman that brings forth new life, the most profound manifestation of mystery capable in the created realm. It is the woman that gives birth to a new person and thereby changes the entire created order – even the angels are not capable of such a mystery. As Christ turned His blood into the Eucharistic food for his disciples, so too does the woman change her own blood into food for her infant. We veil what is most sacred, and understood in this manner it is not so much that the woman wears a veil out of respect for the Church, but rather the Church gives a veil out of respect for the woman.

© 2013. Jake Tawney. All Rights Reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Veiling in the Liturgy”

  1. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: Fr. Mike Phillippino | St. John

  2. Jake, you have written another excellent article.

    There is also Veronica’s Veil to consider. Here’s a link to a video I found very compelling:

    An in depth look can be found in the book “The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus” [ ]

    There is a sense in which Jesus can be seen as a veil himself of our Trinitarian God.

    Let us know what you think about this further step.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking post.

  3. Pingback: Veiling in the Liturgy - CATHOLIC FEAST - Sync your Soul

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