I understand the symbolism behind it. During Lent we should turn to various forms of asceticism, and the Sanctuary is reflecting our interior condition. I get that. Covering up the crucifix through all of Lent is not the way to do that.
I'll start out by establishing how this practice stands with regards to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Missale Romanum itself, then after that I will write about my own spiritual reaction to the lack of the crucifix at Mass and my reflections on this scenario.
First, from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
Next is the document Paschale Solemnitatis:
The practice of covering the crosses and images in the church may be observed, if the
episcopal conference should so decide. The crosses are to be covered until the end of the
celebration of the Lord’s passion on Good Friday. Images are to remain covered until the
beginning of the Easter Vigil.
Paschale Solemnitatis has to be read carefully. It doesn't appear to be clear about what the bishop's conference may decide. The endnote of this document also refers to the Roman Missal, which other sources imply is more specific regarding not covering crosses before Passiontide. I'm not sure I've understood it as well as I should, Anyway, to clear things up I searched the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to see what their specific instructions are, since it is clear that any covering of the cross must be approved by that body. Here's what I found:
Decoration. The season [Lent] is marked by a stark character; flowers are expressly forbidden in the altar area. That same character should be reflected in all aspects of “decoration” throughout the season. Some places retain the custom of covering the cross, statues and other images for the last two weeks of Lent (a period that used to be called “Passiontide”).
So it appears that the CCCB only allows the covering of the cross at Passiontide (fifth Sunday of Lent) and afterwards.
I'm also reading an EWTN article right now that deals with the covering of the cross during Lent. EWTN is more clear in its interpretation that veiling is limited to Passiontide until the end of the celebration of the passion on Good Friday, and also that it is more common for the covering to occur after Mass on Holy Thursday. EWTN also indicates that veiling is forbidden before Passiontide. The article refers to a 17th century bishop's document which is not sourced, so if anyone knows about that please let me know.
Veiling during all of Lent may have been a common practice in the Middle Ages, but it has been restricted to Passiontide for several centuries. Hence, the practice our reader described is incorrect. The altar or processional cross is not veiled and, indeed, its use is implied in the rubrics for the solemn Masses of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.
I also have here a document from the USCCB that says thus:
The Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, provides a rubric at the beginning of the texts for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, which allows that: “the practice of covering crosses and images in the Church from the Fifth Sunday of Lent is permitted, according to the judgment of the Conferences of Bishops. Crosses remain veiled until the end of the celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday; images remain veiled until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”
The Missale Romanum of course will be the normative rule for the entire Latin Church. Unfortunately I do not have an English copy of the text. A Latin pdf may be found at this link. I think the USCCB is clear enough in this case.
So with all this, I think it is clear that the covering of the crucifix should not be done before Passiontide for any reason. To do so before Ash Wednesday is clearly incorrect.
Now, more importantly, we have to look at the spiritual effects of not following this instruction. The covering of the cross after it is permitted is a good thing. It does quite obviously have a penitential aspect to it. It is very austere and humbling. However, since it is so powerful, it should also be extremely limited.
There is a very good reason that a crucifix must be present at Mass. Preferably on the Altar, but most certainly very very close to it. In my opinion, the ideal is to have the Altar, tabernacle, and crucifix as a single entity, like this:
|I think this is a good example because the altar is fairly simple, therefore the tabernacle is easy to see.|
When I have to deal with a covered crucifix throughout all of Lent, I believe that it seriously damages my experience at Mass. The worship itself seems directionless. The tabernacle is there (and thank God that it hasn't been shoved in some side chapel), but our altar is plain and barren, and also very physically separated from the tabernacle and crucifix, which are close together. I have personally found it much harder to focus, both this Sunday, and all of last Lent. While the tabernacle is in an appropriate place, it is unadorned, and the crucifix is a more visual reminder of Christ's presence.
Its absence is very palpable, in my opinion. It annoys me that it is gone, and I wish our priest did not do this.
I believe that the covering of the crucifix also adds, intentionally or not, to the common theme these days which makes the priest the centre of the Mass. This is most clear through the common versus orientem posture of the priest that has become the de facto norm, as well as the situation of priests putting their own personal touches to the text of the Mass.
By removing the crucifix, my priest seems to be directing attention away from that part of the Sanctuary, and towards himself. It becomes "his Mass", no longer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In my perfect parish, the Altar, tabernacle, and crucifix would all be placed in the same part of the Sanctuary, but certainly not one of these elements can be removed without serious damage to the Mass. The decision to move tabernacles to side chapels is just as damaging, and just as obviously harmful to us, the faithful. We need to be able to focus our devotion on Christ, and those three elements both work together to help us do so visually. The crucifix reminds us of His crucifixion, the tabernacle of His True Present, and the Altar of His sacrifice of Himself. Lacking one of these elements, we are all impoverished.