What are the symbols of Lent and what is their meaning?
Lent is a forty-day penitential season spent in preparation for the highest holy days of our Christian faith, the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Over the centuries many symbols have evolved that represent key spiritual aspects of this holy season.
Ashes. In the Old Testament ashes represent death and sorrow for sins. Ashes and dust are synonymous. Our bodies are made of dust (Gen 2:7), and upon death they return to “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:17). Ashes serve as a stark reminder of human mortality which is a compelling reason to do penance. In biblical times, once people admitted their sins they covered themselves with sackcloth and ashes (Jer 6:26; 25:34; Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:6,10) as a public admission of guilt, a plea for God’s mercy, a promise to reform, and a pledge to resist future temptation. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the burning of palms from previous Palm Sundays, the residue is crushed into a fine powder, and then applied to the forehead in the Sign of the Cross with one of two statements: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mk 1:15) or “Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). Antiphon I on Ash Wednesday urges us: “Come back to the Lord with all your heart; leave the past in ashes.”
Violet. Violet is the liturgical color for the season of Lent, as well as the color of the stole worn by the priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Violet is a somber color which symbolizes mourning, suffering, humility, regret, and the willingness to do penance, particularly fasting. Violet’s association with suffering is based upon Jesus’ Passion when the soldiers clothed him in a purple cloak and tortured him (Mk 15:17-20; Jn 19:2-3).
Barren stones. Jesus went out into the desert where the landscape was parched and the surface covered with loose stones and almost no sand. The stones are a symbol of austerity and rigor, desolation and misery, severity and sadness. The devil used stones to tempt Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3), but Jesus made them a symbol for overcoming temptation when he replied, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4; Dt 8:3).
Fish. A fish is a Lenten symbol for the obligation to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to abstain from all flesh meat on every Friday in Lent.
Praying Hands. Praying hands represent prayer, the activity that ranks first among the other three traditional penitential practices: fasting, almsgiving, and works of charity. Prayer is the premier way to strengthen one’s relationship with God, and in so doing, to turn away from sin.
Incense. Incense is another symbol for prayer. The Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer come like incense before you” (Ps 141:2); it was customary to burn incense in the Temple to worship God (Lk 1:9); and in John’s vision of heaven the elders were gathered around the throne of the Lamb, and “Each held bowls filled with incense which are the prayers of the holy ones” (Rev 5:8). As incense smoke curls upward in the air, may our prayers rise upward to God, and as the fragrant fumes have a pleasing aroma, so may the sincerity of our prayer be pleasing to God.
A Money Bag or Money Bags symbolize the Lenten penitential practice of almsgiving. It is “penitential” because it “covers a multitude of sins” (Sir 3:29). In fact, the archangel Gabriel, the great messenger for God, exhorted Tobit and his son Tobiah, “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who give alms shall enjoy a full life” (Tob 12:8,9).
Pretzels. Pretzels had their origin in early Christian Lenten practice. “Because fat, eggs, and milk were forbidden during Lent, a special bread was made with dough consisting of only flour, salt, and water. These little breads were shaped in the form of arms crossed in prayer and were called bracellae (Latin, ‘little arms’). Among the Germans the Latin word became ‘bretzel.’ These pretzels were a common Lenten food throughout the Middle Ages in Europe and became an all year round snack, in its original shape, only in the 19th century” (Dues, G., Catholic Customs and Traditions, 76-77).
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2008, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.