Lent: Symbols

Three powerful symbols are associated with liturgy in Lent.
The use of ashes stems from our Jewish heritage. The Hebrew scriptures refer to ashes in a number of different ways. Abraham says of himself: “I am dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). Job tells his friends: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes” (Job 13:12). Ashes here suggest humility and human insignificance, as in the familiar “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
In the book of Numbers, we read that the ashes of a red heifer were used as a purification offering to ritually cleanse the unclean (Num 19:9).
Ashes were also used in scripture to express mourning and sorrow. When the city of Nineveh was confronted with its sin the king “covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6).
The ritual use of ashes was carried over into Christian liturgy. The foreheads of public sinners, who entered the “order of penitents” at the beginning of Lent, were marked with ashes. By the Middle Ages this practice extended to the entire community in acknowledgment of the fact that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. Today we continue the Jewish understanding of ashes as a symbol of humility, purification and sorrow when we are marked with ashes on the first day of Lent as a sign of our willingness to cleanse our heart through prayer, fasting and self-denial.
No other sign so clearly symbolises Christianity as the cross. That this is so puzzled many at the time of the early church who saw the cross in a totally different light. Crucifixion was the cruelest means used by the Romans to execute criminals. It symbolised hatred, despair, pain, degradation, powerlessness. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead meant that the cross took on a completely new meaning for his followers. It became a symbol of victory over death and salvation from sin, a sign of both death and of love.
Besides being a primary symbol of Christianity, the cross is a central object in our liturgy. During Lent the cross will lead the procession of psalms on Psalm Sunday, it will be the focus on Stations of the Cross devotions, and it will be venerated on Good Friday. Ideally, the main cross in our worship space is the one we venerate on Good Friday and use as the processional cross throughout the year.
Purple or violet is the prescribed liturgical colour for Lent. It should be a sombre blue-violet in contrast to the lighter purple of Advent. The aim is to visually evoke a mood of simplicity and austerity, so adding symbols to purple hangings is unnecessary and distracting. The colour is the symbol.
Some may remember when the 4th Sunday of Lent was called Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday and rose coloured vestments were worn. It was one day of rejoicing in the middle of the sombre season of Lent. With our present understanding of lent, it makes no sense to differentiate the 4th Sunday. All Sundays are days of festivity in any case!
Liturgy planners don’t have to go searching for suitable symbols for Lent. Ashes, cross, purple – they say it all!


Elizabeth Harrington