Symbols of Lent

In many of our churches Advent is celebrated with numerous signs and symbols. Special banners, Advent wreaths, and Chrismon trees enrich our worship and give deeper meaning to our celebration. But, aside from palm branches on Palm Sunday and perhaps a few candles on Good Friday, few churches make similar use of symbols during Lent.

On these pages Dean Deppe describes how his congregation meaningfully used symbols appropriate to Christ's death to enhance their worship services during Lent. These Lenten symbols can serve as the basis for the service of reconciliation, for the sermon, or for the children's message.

Deppe explains that all of the symbols he used were related to the cross. As the primary symbol of Lent, the cross is the central object upon which the rest of the symbolism depends.

Sunday 1. On the first Sunday of Lent the bare cross stood in front of our sanctuary, marking the beginning of a new season in the church year. We called the children forward at one point during the service and, using ash, made the sign of the cross on each child's right hand—a mark symbolizing our mortality and our need of Christ's sacrifice. The children then sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before" and we talked about how important it is to bring the cross with us into the everyday activities of life. One child was so impressed that when his ash cross wore off his hand, he asked his father to search the fireplace for more ashes, wanting the mark of Christ's death fully visible on his forehand.

Sunday 2.On the second Sunday of the season we draped a purple cloth over the cross. For many centuries purple, representing the message of repentance, has been the color of Lent. (In the Roman Catholic tradition the figure of Jesus on the cross is covered with a purple cloth throughout the season.)

Repentance from sins is a very important theme as we ponder the significance of Christ's cross.

Sunday 3. On the third Sunday we wrapped a piece of sackcloth around the central post and arms of the cross. The Jewish people clothe themselves in sackcloth as a sign of their penitence before God.

Jonah 3:5 tells us that the people of Nineveh, from the greatest of them to the least of them, showed their repentance and devotion to God by proclaiming a fast and putting on sackcloth.

We read Luke 10:13 which ties the symbols of the first three weeks together: the people of Bethsaida should have "repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes." And we talked about the importance of prayer and fasting during Lent.

Sunday 4. On the fourth Sunday the message of Christ's suffering was prominent. (Lord's Day 15 of the Heidelberg Catechism fits in well here.) For this service we hung a crown of thorns from the top of the cross, reminding us of the physical suffering, mocker)', aloneness, injustice, and separation from God which Christ endured for us.

Sunday 5. On the fifth Sunday we commemorated Christ's death. This time the symbol was drawn from Jesus' parable of the stalk of wheat whose grains must be placed in the ground and decay before they can bring forth an abundant harvest. John 12:24 states, "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." Christ is that grain of wheat. However, we also, through the Imitatio Christi, are like grains of wheat that must die to ourselves before the rich harvest of the kingdom of God can take place in our lives.

Sunday 6. The sixth Sunday of Lent is known as Palm or Passion Sunday. The palm branch is the symbol for this celebration. We gave palm branches to the children to wave during the processional, celebrating the kingship of Christ. We also placed a few palm branches in vases alongside the stalks of wheat and draped several more over the communion table.

Maundy Thursday. In this special service we celebrated the life and fellowship which we receive through Christ's death. The symbols of the communion cup and loaf of bread are most fitting here. God has provided the Lord's Supper through which we partake of all of the blessings of Christ's death on the cross.

Although the author's description of use of symbols during Lent concludes at this point, many churches may want to add symbols for Good Friday and Easter.

The Tenebrae Service which many churches hold on Good Friday (see RW2) is a very moving service in which candles are extinguished one by one until only the Christ Candle remains lit—a symbol of the anticipated resurrection.

On Easter morning churches may want to drape a white cloth over the cross, symbolizing the resurrected Christ, and decorate the church with bright banners and flowers that reflect the joy of the Easter celebration.

Litany for Lent

The Community CRC congregation gained a deeper understanding of these Lenten symbols and an appreciation for their scriptural meaning through a "Litany Celebrating the Themes of Lent." The following excerpt was used on Sunday 5.

The grain of wheat symbolizes Christ's death and our death to our selves.

Leader: "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24).

People: Jesus is that grain of wheat who died to bring forth a harvest of disciples.

Leader: We are also like that grain of wheat which must fall into the ground and die.

People: We know that our old self was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6).

Leader: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).

People: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).

Hymn: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"

Dean Deppe is professor of New Testament, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 6 © December 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.