Penitence, Death, Resurrection: Understanding the Symbols of Lent

The Lenten season is the most significant time in the Catholic calendar, even more so than Advent and the Christmas season. During Lent, we mourn Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, repent of the sins that made His suffering necessary, and rejoice in His resurrection. These mysteries are at the very foundation of our faith.

The symbols of Lent are rooted in that foundation, harkening back to Old Testament times, drawn from themes present throughout the scripture. It’s crucial to understand the meaning behind these symbols, to know they’re far more than empty ritual. Engaging with these symbols of Lent can help Catholics more fully understand the season and draw themselves nearer to the mind of Christ.

40 Days

There are technically 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday. However, Sundays are not counted in the total, as they are not prescribed days of fasting or abstinence. Sundays are certainly part of the Lenten season, of course, but can be thought of as a time to joyfully anticipate Easter Sunday.

Why 40 days? It’s a significant number in scripture, the symbolic number of spiritual trial and judgment (for example, in the Great Flood it rained for 40 days and nights). Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning His public ministry. Catholics spend 40 days in prayer, fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving to identify with Christ’s suffering and prepare for the joy of His resurrection.

The Cross

Few Catholics need to be told that the cross is a symbol of Christ’s suffering and resurrection. During Lent, however, it’s worth pondering how extraordinary it is that this instrument of torture takes on a new meaning through faith.

Crucifixion was an extremely brutal way of executing criminals. For Jews living in the Roman Empire, it was a symbol of nothing but a long and painful death. Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection transformed the cross into a symbol of faith and hope — in the same way Christians are transformed into a new creation through Christ.

Ashes

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are anointed with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. There are multiple layers of symbolism associated with ashes, all embodying the themes of penitence, mortification, and mourning.

In Hebrew times, ash and dust were synonymous, and both symbolized the inevitability of death. The traditional recitation for Ash Wednesday comes from Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return from the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Hebrews also dressed in sackcloth and ashes for mourning.

The symbol takes on an extra meaning for Catholics, as the ashes are traditionally made from the burned palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. In that way, the hope of the coming Easter is still part of the mourning symbolized by the ashes.

Purple

The color purple — generally a darker, more somber shade than the light purple of Advent — holds multiple meanings for the Lenten season. First, it represents a combination of red and blue, with the red symbolizing Christ’s blood, and the blue signifying hope for new life. Together, they create purple, uniting the mourning of Christ’s death and rejoicing at the resurrection.

Purple is also historically considered a royal color, because in ancient times purple dye was difficult to make. Therefore, purple garments were extremely rare and reserved for royalty. In that way, purple at Lent reminds us that Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Fish

Catholics are called to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to not eat meat every Friday during the season, with the exception of fish meat. The fish was a symbol of early Christianity, as Christ said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” When Christianity was banned in Rome, Christians would use the fish symbol as a secret sign to other followers. The fish is still a symbol for modern-day Christians, as a sign for those who have been brought to new life through the Baptism Sacrament.

Embrace the Symbols of the Lenten Season

The Lenten season is one of contemplation and spiritual discipline for Catholics. The central themes of reflection, prayer, mourning, penitence, death, and resurrection are woven throughout the season in the symbols we use to commemorate it.

Want More Illumination Around Lent?

Then check out these other help and informational posts to help you learn more about the Lenten season:

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